American Negro Exhibit, Paris Exposition, 1900 (detail). Special Collections and University Archives,
University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

Solving the Mysteries of the Hampton Album

A team searches for answers to a photography collection’s enigmas.
Jane Pierce September 10, 2019
From left: Frances Benjamin Johnston’s Agriculture. Mixing Fertilizer; cover of The Hampton Album, 1899–1900
From left: Frances Benjamin Johnston’s Agriculture. Mixing Fertilizer; cover of The Hampton Album, 1899–1900

What is the Hampton Album? In 1965 the collector and cultural impresario Lincoln Kirstein gave The Museum of Modern Art what he affectionately called “a plump, anonymous, leatherbound album, old and scuffed….” The cover bears no markings, and inside there are no clues to identify a maker. The majority of the 159 platinum prints depict groups of African Americans and Native Americans in various classroom settings and around a campus. Captions, written in cursive on delicate, transparent interleaving sheets—along with the often-legible script visible on chalkboards in the photographs themselves—establish the place and time in which the photographs were taken: Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, in Hampton, Virginia, in December 1899 and January 1900. With this confirmed, the mysterious object came to be known as the Hampton Album.

Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) was founded in 1868 to educate recently emancipated African Americans. By 1899, many of the students were children or grandchildren of former slaves, and one-fifth of the students were Native Americans. Hampton’s educational philosophy revolved around vocational training, aiming to teach a range of practical skills and train future teachers. Their methods are explained in more depth by curator Sarah Meister and artist LaToya Ruby Frazier in the Museum’s recent publication Frances Benjamin Johnston: The Hampton Album.

At times, curatorial work can resemble detective work.

The questions about this “inexhaustibly revealing” object (as Kirstein referred to it) exceeded the known facts. What is the story behind these photographs? Why were they made? Who put the album together and when? Who was the photographer and why had his/her name been lost to history?

While we like to share our knowledge, this mysterious object points to the fact that often there is more we don’t know about an object than we do know. And at times, curatorial work can resemble detective work. Over the years, MoMA staff have chipped away at the list of unknowns, allowing us to properly credit producers and participants whose roles had been obscured, some for more than a century.

Frances Benjamin Johnston sitting with her camera, c. 1900
Frances Benjamin Johnston sitting with her camera, c. 1900

Following Kirstein’s discovery of the album in a Washington, DC, bookstore during World War II, the first Hampton detective was Grace M. Mayer, a MoMA photography curator. In preparation for the Museum’s 1966 exhibition and catalogue, Mayer went to Hampton to learn more. She diligently copied hundreds of archival documents by hand, and returned with “conclusive evidence” that Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864–1952) was the album’s photographer.

Who was the photographer and why had his/her name been lost to history?

One of America’s first female photojournalists, Johnston had been commissioned by Hampton to showcase the philosophies and activities of the school. She made multiple prints of her Hampton photographs: Her own are now at the Library of Congress, another selection is part of the Social Museum Collection at the Harvard Art Museums, and the Hampton University Archives contain a nearly complete album. Another set—now missing—was displayed at the 1900 Paris Exposition, where the photographs were mounted to boards and presented in a wood cabinet with folding leaves. Despite the photographs’ heralded presence in Paris, they were soon forgotten, and the identity of their maker was obscured until Mayer’s research helped bring them to light.

Some 50 years after Mayer’s journey to Hampton, we began to prepare for a new book about the album, and we hoped to solve some of the many remaining mysteries along the way. As a research assistant in the Department of Photography, I eagerly agreed to follow in Johnston’s and Mayer’s footsteps on the historic Hampton University campus. My agenda: to figure out who assembled the Hampton Album and when, and to try to find out more about a selection of photographs in the beginning of the album that appeared to be by someone else. The Hampton University Archives quickly proved to be a treasure trove.

From left: Fragments of The Southern Workman, found in the spine of The Hampton Album, and a facsimile of the same issue (November 1900)
From left: Fragments of The Southern Workman, found in the spine of The Hampton Album, and a facsimile of the same issue (November 1900)

Before the 1966 exhibition, the Hampton Album was unbound. During this process, Museum staff noted fragments of paper that had been stuffed into the spine to provide bulk. Looking again at this material, and fitting the fragments together like pieces of a puzzle, we recognized a page from the Southern Workman, Hampton’s monthly newsletter. Elizabeth Keto, a curatorial intern in the Department of Photography, scoured issues of the Southern Workman to identify the fragments, and discovered they were from the November 1900 issue. This placed the album’s assembly after the 1900 Paris Exposition.

Reviewing a course curriculum I found in the archives made it clear that Hampton offered classes in bookbinding by that time, and similarities to other albums I uncovered in the archives led us to believe that the album was assembled at Hampton.

American Negro Exhibit, Paris Exposition, 1900
American Negro Exhibit, Paris Exposition, 1900

But that wasn’t all. I found correspondence that unveiled another previously anonymous player in the album’s creation: Cora Folsom (1855–1943). Folsom worked for Hampton for over 40 years and, like the majority of the faculty at the time, she was white. During her long tenure she served many roles: nurse, teacher, editor of and contributor to the Southern Workman, correspondent for the Native American alumni (she was reportedly fluent in Lakota), curator of the Hampton Museum, and organizer of the school’s fundraising events and traveling exhibits. Dozens of letters make clear just how hard she worked to ensure Hampton was well represented at world’s fairs. The letters suggest Folsom was preparing for a Hampton exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exposition even before Thomas Calloway, an African American lawyer, began preparing the acclaimed “American Negro Exhibit.” Once Calloway was appointed organizer (alongside Daniel A. P. Murray and W. E. B. Du Bois), Folsom worked tirelessly to feature Johnston’s photographs within the exhibit.

Interleaving sheet from The Hampton Album
Interleaving sheet from The Hampton Album

Folsom’s letters suggested another connection: Her elegant handwriting was strikingly similar to the handwritten captions in the Hampton Album. I was familiar with Johnston’s arguably messier scrawl, and had ruled out that she had inscribed the captions. Though admittedly I’m not a formally trained graphologist, I could discern recognizable quirks of Folsom’s hand. So, in addition to being able to credit her role in promoting Hampton’s work, we can also credit Folsom with the Hampton Album’s inscriptions.

Members of the Hampton Camera Club having tea, c. 1900
Members of the Hampton Camera Club having tea, c. 1900
Francis C. Briggs, Present cabin life among the Sioux (1887), from The Hampton Album
Francis C. Briggs, Present cabin life among the Sioux (1887), from The Hampton Album

I also learned that Folsom had been a member of the Hampton Camera Club, founded in 1893 by staff of the school. The Camera Club papers revealed the identity of the photographer of two images included in the beginning of the Hampton Album: Francis C. Briggs, Hampton’s “business agent” and a club member from 1893 to 1906. These images, and a few others, appear to have been rephotographed by Johnston from prints and/or negatives at Hampton: several were made out West (likely in the Dakotas), where Johnston did not travel, and along their borders we can detect the edges of the original prints. When viewed through a microscope in MoMA’s conservation lab, these rephotographed prints possessed a softer grain than those made from Johnston’s original negatives. These appropriated images were included to help tell a part of Hampton’s story not evident in Johnston’s on-campus work.

To unravel the complex threads of the Hampton Album’s history, it took multiple types of research (object-based, archival, and scientific), and many types of expertise. I wonder what future researchers will find?