This article is posted in honor of Black History Month:
Long before a black family moved into the president’s quarters at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C. was an African-American capital: as far back as Reconstruction, black families made their way to the city on their migration north. By the turn of the 20th century, the District of Columbia had a strong and aspiring black middle class, whose members plied almost every trade in town. Yet in 1894, a black business leader named Andrew F. Hilyer noted an absence: “There is a splendid opening for a first class Afro-American photographer as we all like to have our pictures taken.” Addison Scurlock filled the bill. He had come to Washington in 1900 from Fayetteville, North Carolina, with his parents and two siblings. Although he was only 17, he listed “photographer” as his profession in that year’s census. After apprenticing with a white photographer named Moses Rice from 1901 to 1904, Scurlock started a small studio in his parents’ house. By 1911, he had opened a storefront studio on U Street, the main street of Washington’s African-American community. He put his best portraits in the front window. “There’d be a picture of somebody’s cousin there,” Scurlock’s son George would recall much later, “and they would say, ‘Hey, if you can make him look that good, you can make me look better.’ ” Making all his subjects look good would remain a Scurlock hallmark, carried on by George and his brother Robert.
A Scurlock camera was “present at almost every significant event in the African-American community,” recalls former D.C. Councilwoman Charlene Drew Jarvis, whose father, Howard University physician Charles Drew, was a Scurlock subject many times. Dashing all over town—to baptisms and weddings, to balls and cotillions, to high-school graduations and to countless events at Howard, where he was the official photographer—Addison Scurlock became black Washington’s “photographic Boswell—the keeper of the visual memory of the community in all its quotidian ordinariness and occasional flashes of grandeur and moment,” says Jeffrey Fearing, a historian who is also a Scurlock relative.