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Black History Month: Centennial Faces Exhibit Opens In Downtown Pensacola

Courtesy of UWF Historic Trust
Voices of Pensacola

As Black History Month gets underway, the T.T. Wentworth Museum in downtown Pensacola is hosting an exhibit of remarkable photographs of African Americans living in Tallahassee in the late 19th century. 

Alvan S. Harper was a professional photographer in Tallahassee back when that was a very new and unusual thing to do for a living.  The exhibit, presented by the University of West Florida Historic Trust, is called Centennial Faces and it provides a fresh perspective on the lives of African-American citizens in Tallahassee over 100 years ago.

While we know a lot about the photographer, the subjects of the portraits are a different story. "Unfortunately we don't know who many of them are" said Wanda Edwards, the Chief Curator for the UWF Historic Trust. She says this collection of photographs is highly unusual given its subjects and location. "It's pretty amazing when you look at the photographs very carefully. The women are well dressed. they're wearing jewelry. Some of them have beautiful hats on. The men are wearing their suits. They're very dignified. They're obviously successful. They went to a professional photographer to have their portraits taken. So [this appears to be] a well-to-do group of individuals in Tallahassee around the turn of the century."

"The path these images took from a studio in Tallahassee to this exhibit begins with the man behind the camera. Alvan S. Harper was born in Pennsylvania [and] moved to Tallahassee in 1884 and he had a photography studio for 22 years. In 1946, the state acquired the building where his studio had been. And as the family renting the house was preparing to move, they discovered almost 2000 glass negatives up in the attic."

Glass negatives are as fragile as you’d imagine they’d be, which is why this discovery got a bit of attention. "Word got around about the negatives and so eventually they were transferred over to the state. And now they're in the Florida Photographic Archives at Florida State University. " Edwards says close inspection of the photographs will show cracks and other flaws that transferred from damage done to the glass negatives. 

The photographs are of people from Tallahassee, but Wanda Edwards says they also added a little African American history from Pensacola. They have printed out some copies of a newspaper called The Colored Citizen. It was a paper for the African American community in Pensacola and was printed from the late 1800s up to the 1930s. In addition to the copies of the paper that have been printed and are available at the Centennial Faces exhibit, many more copies have been scanned and are available on line at the University of West Florida Special Collections web site.

The Centennial Faces exhibit will be on display at the T.T. Wentworth Museum through April 25.