‘Centennial Faces’ shines light on African-American portraits, history

By Claudia Carlson

Staff Writer

A traveling exhibit from the Museum of Florida History has found a temporary home at the T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Florida State Museum until late April.

The “Centennial Faces” exhibit showcases photographs of African-Americans living in Tallahassee around 1885-1910 by Alvan S. Harper. Each of the 49 portraits in the exhibit was shot with a glass plate negative. This technique shows exquisite detail in the portraits. Only a fraction of the 2,000 photographs originally taken are featured in the exhibit.

African-Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s were prominently subjected to a life of slavery. What makes Harper’s portraits so unique is that they show just the opposite. In his portraits, you will see African-Americans dressed in remarkable clothing that signifies an affluent lifestyle.

According to an information booklet at the exhibit: “The subjects of his pictures are well-to-do or are from the upper-middle class. They are dressed in beautiful, ornate dresses or fine, carefully fitted sober attire. Their faces shine with dignity, self-reliance, and optimism. Even during the period of slavery, there had been a small number of African-Americans who had made it through the social and economic barriers erected by that system to a certain measure of prosperity. They seem far away from the hardships known to have existed among the great majority of African-Americans who lived in Tallahassee during this period.”

The exhibit is set up in such a way that the viewer can appreciate all the photographs. There is not much else in the room, there are no distractions, so visitors are able to use give it their full attention and get to know the people in the portraits.

When a visitor enters the exhibit, a laminated book relays all the information about the exhibit and Harper himself. There are also printouts that visitors may take around the room that give details about each portrait.

In the middle of the exhibit are also photocopies of The Colored Citizen, a newspaper published in Pensacola from 1914 until the late 1950s. The T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Museum incorporated this into the exhibit to add an element of local Pensacola history. The University of West Florida Historic Trust Archives has 44 copies of the newspaper in its files, and the John C. Pace Library West Florida History Center has seven copies.

“We do a lot of Florida-based exhibits at the museum,” said Wanda Edwards, chief curator. “One of the nice components we have added to the exhibit are the newspapers from the African-American community to show turn-of-the century information that happened in Pensacola.”

The exhibit will be at the T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Museum until April 25, and UWF students get free admission by showing a student ID.

For more information on the museum, including hours and directions, visit the Historic Pensacola website.