Repurposing and Remixing Archival Images

A surprising glimpse of a historical photo with a long history

A recent episode of Abbott Elementary had a historical photograph as a plot point of the episode. We tracked down that photograph and offer a bit more of its real-life history.

During a recent episode of Abbott Elementary, the satisfying conclusion of the episode discussed the “specialness” of the fictional school in Philadelphia where the show takes place.

The last scene shows teachers and students assembled to hang a framed photograph showing the first Black teachers who worked at the school. The photo, which they found in the “school archives” was highlighted as a point of pride, something they could all feel good about. The photograph looked familiar to me and I wondered if it was one from Flickr Commons.

Using some image editing skills and reverse image search tools, I found that the photograph shown above was from one of the Flickr Commons members, the Library of Congress. Going to the original source of this image showed that it was from a Black photographer Thomas E. Askew who worked at the turn of the last century.

Thomas E. Askew self-portrait

Another photograph from the same series as the one in Abbott Elementary is in the Commons.

[Four African American women seated on steps of building at Atlanta University, Georgia] (LOC)

Not much is known about Askew. He was a formerly-enslaved man, born in 1847. He lived in Atlanta, Georgia where these photographs were taken. Business directories show him working at the CW Motes Studio and he had a personal photography studio in his home. From a blog post from the Historic Oakland Foundation (where he is buried):

Askew’s personal, intimate portraits showed a broader range of the Black experience that stood in stark contrast to the stereotypes present in the media of the time. His subjects ranged in age, skin-tone, attire, and vocation and reframed the visual aesthetics and culture developed by Black Americans in the decades following emancipation. This imagery challenged the perception that the American middle class was an exclusively white experience.

He became better-known after his photographs were included in an album titled Types of American Negroes that was compiled by W. E. B. Du Bois for the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris. Du Bois won a gold medal for his role as “collaborator” and “compiler” of materials for the exhibit.

W.E.B. (William Edward Burghardt) Du Bois, 1868-1963 (LOC)

The Library of Congress has determined that Du Bois specifically commissioned Askew to take photographs of Black middle-class people for this exhibition. Askew’s wife Mary was a seamstress and the role of both clothing and accessorizing was an important part of these photos. As the LoC States in their 2003 book A small nation of people : W.E.B. Du Bois and African American portraits of progress,

When we look at the photographs Askew took of these people, we can see a tension in the well-dressed students and residents of Georgia. The style of dress worn by the subjects reveals the status of the sitters, either real or hoped for; we see them today as class-conscious Blacks.

Of the albums Du Bois curated with Thomas J. Calloway, four were photographic, and included this image (photographer unknown) of a baseball team from Morris Brown College which had been founded less than two decades previously by the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

[African American baseball players from Morris Brown College, with boy and another man standing at door, Atlanta, Georgia] (LOC)

Askew had nine children. Five of them (plus one neighbor) are in this photograph, which was also sent to the Paris Exposition.

Celebrating World Photography Day! (LOC)

From a five-second peek at a photograph in a television show, we can look closer and learn more about the history of the United States, and even of photography itself.