Camera on African-American History

Posted January 30, 2009 at 3:37pm

Paul Gardullo, 40, did not have a ticket to attend the inauguration of President Barack Obama. No matter: He took his wife, two daughters and mother-in-law to the National Mall to witness the historic oath of office of the country’s first African-American head of state.

When singer Aretha Franklin belted “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” to kick off the ceremony, Gardullo was shocked. “It was a daunting surprise,” he said. “There is an amazing echo from one end of the Mall to the other over the course of 70 years.”

Gardullo was referring to April 9, 1939, when 75,000 people assembled on the Mall to witness the performance of Marian Anderson, an acclaimed African-American contralto. Anderson was denied the chance to sing at Washington’s Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall because of her race, so civil rights activists worked for her to stage a free concert on the Mall. She opened her historic recital with a powerful rendition of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”

The image of Anderson singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is among the photographs featured at the exhibition, “The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise,” which opened Friday and will run through Nov. 15 at the National Museum of American History. Gardullo, a curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, spent 14 months preparing the exhibition.

For Gardullo to hear the same song at the inauguration of America’s first black president was “astounding,” he said.

The exhibit, featuring photographs taken by Addison Scurlock and sons Robert and George, could not have come at a better time, he said. “There’s a story to each and every photograph you will see here. I envision that people would feel a sense of connection to the stories that are on these walls no matter what their race is,” Gardullo said.

The Scurlock Studio was one of the premier African-American studios in the country.

Founded by Addison Scurlock in 1911, the studio was originally located at 900 U St. NW and became one of the longest- running black businesses in D.C.

“The Scurlocks are synonymous with any important occasion. I heard one anecdote that you weren’t really married until the Scurlocks do your wedding. The central role that the studio played in the African-American community throughout the 20th century is highlighted here,” said Brent Glass, director of the National Museum of American History.

Scurlock and his sons captured images of important events in the lives of the black community: baptisms, graduations, weddings, sporting events, civil protests, high-society affairs and visits from dignitaries.

The studio became known for its portraits of famous African-Americans, including musicians Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday; actor Sidney Poitier; boxer Muhammad Ali; poets Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Countee Cullen; physician Charles Drew; and Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois.

The Scurlocks also built a business by creating a “look” for their clients that was dignified, mature and sophisticated. The subjects in the photographs “knew that when they came to the Scurlocks, they will be treated with dignity,” Gardullo said. He said Addison Scurlock was very meticulous in taking the portraits and wanted his subjects to look the way that they wanted to be seen and remembered.

The senior Scurlock also perfected hand-coloring retouching techniques for negatives and prints as a specialty service to customers. “Addison was retouching photos long before Photoshop,” Gardullo said.

The Scurlocks were also the official photographers of Howard University, which is “the key to establishing Washington, D.C., as the intellectual mecca of black America in the early 20th century. And the Scurlocks really put that mission into film,” Gardullo said.

Besides photographs, the exhibit also features cameras, equipment and other artifacts from the studio, including an Ansco view camera, which Addison Scurlock used in the 1920s.

At the National Museum of American History, where the exhibit will be on display, Gardullo was making final touches by tacking index cards onto a board last week. A black man in his 50s walked up to Gardullo and asked what the index cards were for. Gardullo said the cards contained anecdotes from people sharing their experiences during the era of segregation.

The man, 56-year-old Larry Owens, asked for a blank index card. Owens said he had a story to tell. “See this? This caught my eye,” he said, pointing to a photograph of U Street taken in the 1940s.

The caption on the photograph read: “By day, U Street was home to hundreds of black business owners and their patrons who populated restaurants, boutiques and services that lined the street. At night, the street turned into a vibrant club and theatre swirl, where musicians, dancers, actors and other entertainers performed and mingled with the hippest and most fashionable people in Washington.”

But to Owens, U Street meant much more. It was trip down memory lane. Owens was a teenager when his family moved to the District from New York in 1967. “I used to live down the street from there,” he said.

U Street corridor was the center of Washington’s music scene. “You can always stand outside Howard Theatre and watch the stars come in and out. We couldn’t afford tickets to get in, so what you do is stand in the back door and watch the stars come in,” Owens said. Owens, a security guard at the Smithsonian Institution, said, “This weekend I am off, and I am going to take my grandkids here. This is something that they need to know and see.”