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Black History Portraits: The Famous and The Forgotten

William Pettiford, 1908. African American Perspectives Portrait Gallery.

This is a guest post by Elizabeth Gettins, a digital library specialist in the Digital Collections Management and Services Division.

William R. Pettiford was born in Birmingham, Alabama, coming of age in the turbulent years after slavery ended and Reconstruction was a violent, uncertain business. In this tumultuous environment, he was smart, studious and devoutly religious. Early in his career, he worked as a minister and teacher in various towns across Alabama. In 1890, when he was in his late 40s, he founded the Alabama Penny Savings Bank. which greatly spurred black economic development in the region, with an emphasis on home ownership. Starting out with initial deposits and stock of $2,500, in 20 years deposits were $420,000 (roughly $11 million in 2021). He’s credited with being one of the most significant Black bankers and lenders of the era.

His is one of many portraits in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division’s new digital gallery of African American Portraits, the most recent addition to the digitized African American Perspectives Collection. It’s a fascinating collection of nearly 800 items that show the famous and the forgotten in a generation of Black Americans who strived, fought, prayed and kept making a way out of no way during the early decades of freedom.

Taken together, the portraits show the character and humanity of the individuals who fought to better their circumstances against the headwinds of bigotry, enforced poverty and discriminatory laws. Scrolling through the images, you’ll see well-known social activists and religious leaders including Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Alexander Crummell. However, you may be surprised to see so many unfamiliar faces that accomplished so much and made such impressive inroads.

This mosaic of faces brings together those that came before us, from many places across the country and from many walks of life. Together, they form the story, both told and untold, upon which future generations built their own successes. It is our hope that this gallery will encourage further research into the lives of these intriguing historical figures and to give them the credit they so richly deserve.

In addition to Pettiford, here are two more stories. The larger catalogue, and the stories they contain, are yours for the seeking.

Gertrude Bustill Mossell, 1902. African American Perspectives Portrait Gallery.

Gertrude Emily Hicks Bustill was born in Philadelphia in 1855 to a prominent African American family during the last of the antebellum era. She would lead a remarkable life over her 92 years, playing an active, socially-engaged role in all of it. She was a child during the Civil War. She saw Blacks gain freedom from slavery but then be forced into the “separate but equal” lie of segregation. She lived through World War I and worked to help get women the right to vote. She endured the Great Depression, watched World War II unfold and lived to see the United States emerge as the world’s greatest power. She died in 1948, the year after Jackie Robinson integrated professional baseball.

Her father, who had worked on the Underground Railroad to help enslaved Blacks escape to freedom, encouraged her education from an early age. It was a rare opportunity for a woman in that era. She worked her way into being a journalist, author, teacher and activist who strongly supported black newspapers and advocated for more black women to enter journalism. She served as a writer and editor for several newspapers and magazines and published a number of books.

When she married, it was to Nathan Mossell, a prominent Black doctor who helped co-found and then direct the city’s Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School. She was an outspoken advocate for Black women in particular and an ardent supporter of all women’s right to the ballot. She was 65 when the 19th Amendment passed and she was finally eligible to vote.

By the time she died in January of 1948, only part of her life-long goal of a fair life for African Americans had been achieved, but she had left in an indelible mark in her city.

Robert Reed Church. African American Perspectives Portrait Gallery.

Robert Reed Church was an imposing figure who rose from slavery to become one of the richest and most influential Black men in the South in the late 19th century – and his oldest daughter, Mary Church Terrell, became one of the most important educators, activists and female suffrage advocates in American history. Her papers are at the Library and you can help digitize them in this month’s By the People Transcribe-A-Thon.

Church, born in 1839 in north Mississippi, was the son of slave-owner Charles Church and one of his enslaved women, Emmeline. Charles Church owned and piloted steamboats. Emmeline Church died when Robert was 12. He said later in life that his father had never treated neither him nor his mother as slaves — but his father never acknowledged him as his child, didn’t have him educated and only allowed him to work on his steamships in menial jobs that were reserved for Blacks.

His break in life came in the Civil War when Union troops seized his father’s ship (with him on it), and then dropped off the crew in Memphis. From there, Church began to run a series of saloons, shops, stores and buy land that, over time, made him a fortune. In the 1866 riot by white mobs in Memphis – 46 Black people were killed, an unknown number of women were raped, a dozen churches were burned – whites shot Church and, believing him dead, left him. He survived. A few years later, a sheriff shot and wounded him yet again.

Undaunted, he became a hugely influential city booster and founded Solvent Savings Bank & Trust Company, the first black-owned bank in the city, which extended credit to Blacks so they could buy homes and develop businesses. As a philanthropist, he also used his wealth to fund and develop prominent parks, concert halls and entertainment facilities for Blacks who were excluded by racial segregation from nearly all other amenities. President Theodore Roosevelt spoke at one of his venues, as did Booker T. Washington. W.C. Handy performed there.

By the time Church died in 1912, his family was an institution in city life. His children continued the family tradition of education, service and devotion to civic causes and African American achievement.

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