A Cross-Collection Endeavor: Researching Photographs of Hampton Institute in Harvard’s Social Museum Collection

By Jane Pierce
July 15, 2020
Index Magazine

A Cross-Collection Endeavor: Researching Photographs of Hampton Institute in Harvard’s Social Museum Collection

In this black and white photograph, several African American and Native American students sit on benches in a classroom. Each holds a small globe. At right, an African American man stands near a blackboard, holding a long pointer to a chalk drawing illustrating the earth’s rotation around the sun. A white woman sits at a desk just underneath the chalkboard. Behind the students is an African American woman standing and looking at the man at the board. A man standing next to her is looking at a globe in his hands.
Frances Benjamin Johnston, Geography: Studying the Seasons, from the Hampton Album, 1899–1900. Platinum print. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Lincoln Kirstein, 859.1965.63. Digital image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, N.Y.

“It would of course be terribly interesting if you could find out anything about the photographer himself, what his background and working situation was, and what other work he might have done.”

So states a 1965 letter from John Szarkowski, director of the Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Photography, to curator Grace M. Mayer.[1] Szarkowski was sending Mayer to Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), in Virginia; her goal was to learn more about the photographer of 159 sumptuous platinum prints, which had recently been given to the museum, compiled in a leather-bound album. The trip proved fruitful—Mayer identified the photographer as Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864–1952), who had taken the photographs on Hampton’s campus between 1899 and 1900.  

More than 50 years later, as a research assistant at MoMA, I found myself on a very similar mission: to find out more about the artist and the album itself, in preparation for a new publication on Johnston’s Hampton Album.

Quite a lot has been revealed about this extraordinary album since it was first given to MoMA by Lincoln Kirstein, who purchased the album in a bookstore in Washington, D.C., during World War II. At the turn of the century, Johnston had been commissioned to showcase the philosophies and activities of what was then called the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. It was founded in 1868 to educate recently emancipated African Americans, and in 1878, the school began admitting Native Americans as well. The vast majority of Johnston’s images depict groups of students focused on their lessons, in classroom settings and outdoors. The photographs are a remarkable record of this unique educational moment in post-emancipation United States. By the time Johnston arrived at Hampton, her work had already been published nationwide, and she was operating a successful portrait studio in Washington, D.C. As a Washington Times reporter enthused, “Johnston is the only lady in the business of photography in the city, and in her skillful hands it has become an art that rivals the geniuses of the Old World.”[2]

Our research team at MoMA still had unanswered questions about the album, however: Who assembled it and when? What was the broader historical context? Could we uncover any other key characters in the story? Such questions meant that cross-collection research would be indispensable to this project, as we needed to see how MoMA’s prints compared to those at other institutions, and we were hopeful that a deep dive into archival correspondence would also help us piece together the puzzle. Our research team quickly realized that, in order to solve the remaining mysteries, we would need to visit each of the main repositories for Johnston’s images from this project: the Library of Congress, the Hampton University Archives, and the Social Museum Collection at the Harvard Art Museums.[3] Over the course of a few months, we visited each location, where we carefully sifted through hundreds of precious photographs and pored through even more correspondence. Along the way, we made discoveries that not only shed light on the album’s makers and historical context but also are relevant to issues of race and education today. 

Our research team found out that a set of Johnston’s images from Hampton ended up at Harvard in the early 20th century, thanks to Francis Greenwood Peabody, founder of the Social Museum of Harvard University and a long-term trustee of Hampton. The Social Museum was considered to be the first attempt to “collect the social experience of the world as material for university teaching.”[4] In 1903, Peabody began gathering items for the collection, and Hampton Institute provided exactly the kind of “social experience” that Peabody wished to capture. On December 7, 1903, Peabody made this request of Hampton:

What we need is typical illustrations which would introduce a student to the subject, and permit him with the reports and literature to have the equivalent of a visit to the spot. All pictures of the nature of “before and after,” or practical class-room exercises and actual work, would be of special use.[5]

In a letter of January 12, 1904, he wrote, “I should not mix the ‘befores’ and ‘afters,’ but try to present a living and moving picture from primitive conditions to the best results. Let us have some personal contrasts also, as for instance an Indian arriving and an Indian departing.”[6] Scholar Julie K. Brown, contributor to the Harvard publication Instituting Reform: The Social Museum of Harvard University, 1903–1931 (related to an earlier exhibition and an online Special Collection), discusses these comparisons, which present troubling aspects ingrained in social reform of that era, such as the desire to “civilize” African and Native Americans.[7] MoMA’s research initiative further pursued how Hampton Institute’s educational philosophy influenced its approach to these issues.

By comparing the handwritten captions in MoMA’s album to correspondence in the Hampton University Archives, I learned that Cora Folsom, a faculty member at Hampton, likely assembled MoMA’s album. It was also Folsom who sent a selection of photographs of Hampton to Peabody. Later, in preparation for the Social Museum’s opening in 1907, the images were mounted to boards and placed on swinging panels of beautiful wooden stands (see above). The photographs are still on these mounts today, many with their original labels and captions. The collection was organized by a thematic classification system, with social reform themes such as charity, crime, health, and race. The Hampton images were classified under “Races, Negroes,” but other more “descriptive” subcategories are visible on the boards, including “Environments Impeding the Assimilation of the Negro.” This classification is meant to imply that the living conditions in the cabin pictured made it more difficult for African Americans to assimilate to the (white) American way. The comparative photo placed on the same board is of a stately home, captioned “A Graduate’s House near Hampton.” Peabody’s comparative educational model reiterates that education was key to advancing racial and social progress, but it also perpetuated a paternalistic view that suggested African Americans ought to aspire to white ideals, and that in order to do so, schools such as Hampton were needed.

In 1974, Szarkowski organized an exhibition at MoMA that showcased Peabody’s collection, then known as the Harvard Social Ethics Collection. Five works on view were listed as being by Johnston: three of the Tuskegee Institute and two of Hampton. It’s likely that Johnston took the Tuskegee photos during her 1902 commission at that school. The two Hampton photographs, however, were almost surely taken by a Hampton-based photographer, which we discovered in our research. 

Among the prints Folsom sent to Peabody were representative samples of Johnston’s photographs from her commission, but there were also 14 images of individual figures that seemed quite distinct from the photographs in MoMA’s album. They depicted solitary figures cooking, cleaning, washing, and ironing, for example, instead of groups in a classroom setting. As it turns out, the two Hampton photographs Szarkowski selected for the exhibition were most likely made in 1901, the year immediately following Johnston’s visit to the institute, by Hampton instructor Leigh Richmond Miner.[8]

Miner’s name has been mostly lost to history, but he created a formidable photographic record of African Americans at the turn of the century. At that time, his works were widely seen as illustrations in a series of publications by acclaimed poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, and many of those photos were taken on Hampton’s campus. Miner started teaching at Hampton in 1899, the same year Johnston visited for her commission, and he was an active member in Hampton’s flourishing Camera Club. He became acquainted with Johnston while she was photographing at Hampton, and in a number of her photographs in the album, he is depicted teaching in his classroom. 

Johnston’s images from Hampton were seen at multiple fairs in the early years of the 20th century: the 1900 Paris Exposition, the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, and the 1901 South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition in Charleston. At least 10 of the 14 images of individual figures in Harvard’s collection were shown in the Charleston Exposition as well, and the images are strikingly similar to Miner’s images printed in a 1907 Hampton publication titled Everyday Life at Hampton Institute.[9] For this 1907 commission, Hampton’s principal requested that Miner’s photographs be “of the same sort” that “Miss Johnson [sic]”[10] did, but of “individual students at work.”[11]

As is clear from the images in MoMA’s album, the vast majority of Hampton faculty at the time was white (including Miner). Johnston was also white, which adds another layer of racialized discourse to her photographs. In her essay for MoMA’s new publication, contemporary artist, scholar, and activist LaToya Ruby Frazier states: 

Johnston's photographs are pictorial, architectural—she's clearly looking in a formal way, and it is in the composition of the images that the truth is revealed about how structures of hierarchy, power, and subjugation were enforced in the American educational system at the turn of the twentieth century and, in many ways, still are today.[12]

The history of the Hampton Album is complex, in terms of both its physical creation and its subject matter. While the album draws attention to issues of attribution and anonymity, it also invites a wider discussion of how race and education intersect.


[1] John Szarkowski to Grace M. Mayer, July 7, 1965. The Museum of Modern Art Exhibition Records, 787.12, The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.

[2] “Washington Women with Brains and Business,” Washington Times, April 21, 1895.

[3] In addition to myself, the research team included Sarah Hermanson Meister, curator; River Bullock, the Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Curatorial Fellow; and curatorial intern Elizabeth Keto.

[4] Francis G. Peabody, The Social Museum as an Instrument of University Teaching. Publications of the Department of Social Ethics in Harvard University, no. 4 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1911), 4.

[5] Francis G. Peabody to Cora Folsom, December 7, 1903. HUG 1676.582.2, box 1, file E–F, Papers of Francis Greenwood Peabody, Harvard University Archives, Cambridge, Mass.

[6] Francis G. Peabody to Cora Folsom, January 12, 1904. HUG 1676.582.2, box 1, file E–F, Papers of Francis Greenwood Peabody, Harvard University Archives, Cambridge, Mass.

[7] Julie K. Brown, “Making ‘Social Facts’ Visible in Early Progressive Era,” in Instituting Reform: The Social Museum of Harvard University, 1903–1931, ed. Deborah Martin Kao and Michelle Lamuniere (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Art Museums, 2012), 99.

[8] For assistance with this attribution we are indebted to the scholarship of Ray Sapirstein, director of the Leigh Richmond Miner Photographic Archive.

[9] These images from Everyday Life at Hampton Institute were also used in the 1907 Jamestown Exposition.

[10] Hollis Burke Frissell to Leigh Richmond Miner, October 24, 1906. Frissell Letterbook, Hampton University Archives.

[11] Hollis Burke Frissell to Leigh Richmond Miner, November 6, 1906. Frissell Letterbook, Hampton University Archives.

[12] LaToya Ruby Frazier, “Photographs, Schools, and Systems,” in Frances Benjamin Johnston: The Hampton Album (New York, N.Y.: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019), 25.


Jane Pierce is the Carl Jacobs Foundation Research Assistant in the Robert B. Menschel Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art.