By Janey Fugate
Fourteen African American family members stare back from an old black and white photograph. Their expressions are as austere as the bare hardwood floor beneath them and the simple painted backdrop behind. Sitting in the middle of the group is a man who could only have been the head of the family. Holding a little girl in his lap, his stern expression exudes a certain pride and determination. This same dignity is reflected in the countenance of every person of the multi-generational family.
Through a series of peculiar coincidences, this photograph, dated around 1910, was caught up in the resurgence of interest in black history in Lexington and of interest in family ancestry nationwide.
Blown up as a banner under the title “Find Your History,” the photograph was hung in the Library of Virginia’s window in Richmond facing Broad Street last summer. The image came from one of many glass plate negatives that the library’s special collection’s director, Tom Camden, attributed, at the time, to a Norfolk photographer working at the turn of the century. At the time it was displayed, Camden had no idea who the family in the photo was.
“We selected that particular image because it makes a strong, yet elegant graphic statement,” said Camden.
Then Camden received an unexpected call one day from a man named William Bailey, a information technology technician at Virginia Commonwealth University.
He wanted Camden to know that the image was his great grandfather.
Bailey explained that he had been riding the bus every day past the library for several months and kept catching one face in particular out of the corner of his eye. He finally went over to the building for a closer look and realized that the man in the far right of the image was indeed his great grandfather.
Spottswood Styles was his name and he lived in worked in Lexington, which was also Bailey’s place of birth. With this information, Camden realized they had attributed the photograph to the wrong town and photographer.
“It all boils down to discovery,” said Camden.
This was particularly exciting for Camden because Lexington is also his hometown and where went to college, having graduated from Washington & Lee in 1976. He is now returning to his alma mater as W&L’s director of Special Collections and Archives.
“You find one thread and when you pull this little thread the whole thing folds out for you,” said Camden.
Not only was Spottswood Styles part of a prominent black family, but he was also a published poet. Styles’s status as a poet is all the more unusual given that he was living and writing in a time and town where such creativity among blacks was not encouraged or common.
This serendipitous discovery led Camden’s team to reexamine some of the other glass plate negatives that they thought were taken from that certain photographer in Norfolk. After more investigation, they realized that many of the family portraits, most of which are wealthy white families, may have also been taken in the same studio as Styles’s family portrait in Lexington.
Bailey’s mother said the photograph was most likely taken in André Studio, which up until a few years ago was located at the corner of Jefferson and Nelson Streets.
Inspired by the chain of events and discoveries, Camden and the Rockbridge Historical Society are planning to look to Lexington to identify the people in the other photos.
The Society plans to eventually employ “crowdsourcing” by displaying the photographs at a venue in Lexington to see if people will recognize their ancestors in any of these old photographs like Bailey did.
Camden is relying on the recent resurgence of interest in family history. With the proliferation of ancestry search sites and reality TV shows like “Who Do You Think You Are,” access to one’s lineage is becoming ever more available. The possibility that one’s great grandfather or grandmother was notorious or famous is attractive and exciting to many people.
However, what makes Camden’s crowdsourcing method so interesting is that people in Lexington will get a chance to examine original historical documents.
The Styles photo has also helped encourage the renewal of interest in black history.
“I expect this to lead to other things… It started with Spotswood and the renewed interest in the other photos,” said Montrose Grandberry, an administrative assistant to the library at W&L.
Grandberry is a friend of Bailey and the Styles family. Her husband, Louis, is the pastor of the First Baptist Church, a historically black church in Lexington.
She said there are boxes and boxes of old photos and documents collecting dust in the church’s closets. They pertain to the church’s history and many of the photos depict black families similar to the one of Spottswood Styles. They will be displayed at the church’s 150th anniversary celebration.
At Camden’s suggestion, she plans to make copies of these photos and have people fill in who they believe the individuals are in them.
“If we don’t capture that while we have the time it will be lost,” said Grandberry.