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News Student Blog: Students Preserve the Legacy of African American Service Members in the Photograph Conservation Seminar

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Students are employing a variety of wet and dry cleaning methods (image: Annabelle Fichtner).

If you wandered into the Winterthur University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation student lab during the 2019 Winter Session, you may have seen the Class of 2021 fastidiously documenting and treating a group of important historical photographs from Fisk University. These photographs, which were primarily silver gelatin developed-out prints, ranged in size and subject. However, the majority were part of Fisk's W.E.B Du Bois Collection and documented African American service members in World War I.

At the beginning of World War I, Du Bois, a widely respected civil rights crusader and co-founder of the NAACP, encouraged African Americans to enlist in the war effort, as a way to prove they were equal citizens in the American democracy. However, the efforts of over 350,000 service men and women resulted in no societal change when the war ended, leading Du Bois to feel guilt over his initial and highly contested encouragements.[1]

Due in part to his disappointment in the treatment of African American soldiers by their white officers during the war; Du Bois began work on a book manuscript that he would later title The Black Man in the Wounded World. He intended to write the overlooked history of African American contributions to the war effort. As part of his project, Du Bois solicited photographs from African American soldiers and war nurses all over the United States with the promise that they would be returned after The Black Man in the Wounded World was published. Unfortunately, that day never came. The Du Bois WWI archive is now housed in the Special Collections at Fisk University, but the photographic collections could recently be found in the student lab at Winterthur.

​Left: Many of the photographs have unique ephemera and detailed inscriptions (image: Courtney Helion). Right: As students handle these many photographs, they also are able to hone their photographic process identification skills (image: Emily Brzezinski).

Across the students' desks were images of soldiers digging ditches, Red Cross nurses tending to wounded soldiers, or portraits taken by professional photographers in both the States and France. The subject matter, the condition, and the history of each photograph varied, with many inscribed with the owner's return address or the stamps of newspaper publishers. As students carefully and methodically reduced years of dirt and grime from these photographs, they documented their work in a database that will be shared with Fisk University when the photographs are returned.

The goal of the photographic materials seminar is to expose students to the diversity and preservation of photographic collections. Photographs have the ability to capture history and its people in ways no other art form can, and those of the W.E.B Du Bois Collection are exceptional in this regard. While The Black Man in the Wounded World was never published, the sacrifice and service of African American soldiers is not forgotten. It lives on through the entire W.E.B Du Bois Collection at Fisk and the photographs we feel so incredibly privileged to preserve. Visitors to UD were encouraged to stop by the student lab and see this national treasure during treatment. 

​Fisk Collection photographic bookmark before and after treatment (image: Yungjin Shin).

Approximately 300 photographs have now been stabilized and rehoused in more than 500 treatment hours, and while our 12-day photograph conservation seminar has come to an end, the experience our students gained will serve them forever in their careers ahead.         

As our photograph conservation course began, we valued the unique historical and cultural significance of these photographs, part of the collection at Fisk University. The majority were solicited for W.E.B. Du Bois's unpublished work Black Man in the Wounded World and document African American service members in World War I. Other images portray early students and faculty of Fisk University and the former Central Tennessee College. The diversity of this collection allowed for a rich, exciting, and demanding learning experience.

All of the photographs were photographically documented and surface cleaned. Many others required extensive tear repair, inpainting, and humidification and flattening. While each student examined and stabilized 15-20 photographs with care and precision, they not only learned about the complexities of treating photographic collections. They also learned about the value of collaboration. The treatment of 300 photographs in two-and-a-half weeks was daunting. With each new challenge, students worked together, drawing on their varied preprogram experiences and the input of faculty, visiting lecturers, art historians, and scholars, while uncovering more remarkable stories. As the expertly conserved photographs were re-sleeved and boxed, many students reflected on lessons learned and the power of partnership.  

Treating this significant collection from Fisk University was an honor. We are pleased that the photographs are returning for future study and scholarship.  We are grateful to Fisk University for providing us with this opportunity, not only to work on and learn from such wonderful photographs, but also to practice and understand the value of innovation and collaboration within the field of art conservation. No matter what their discipline or chosen path in life, this is a lesson our students will continue to put into practice. 

— Annabelle Fichtner, UD Class of 2019, Photographic Materials Seminar Teaching Assistant, fichtner@udel.edu

[1] Colleen Walsh. 2018. Retracing Du Bois' missteps. The Harvard Gazette. Accessed January 9, 2019. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/02/radcliffe-fellow-retraces-du-bois-missteps/

​​Left: Fisk Collection glossy collodion cabinet card before and after treatment (image: Maddie Cooper). Right: Fisk Collection silver gelatin print before and after treatment (image: Isaac Messina).

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In the ARTC lab on campus, students in a photograph conservation seminar spent their Winter Session preserving images of African American service members in World War I.

In the ARTC lab on campus, students in a photograph conservation seminar spent their Winter Session preserving images of African American service members in World War I.

1/10/2019
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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489
  • art-conservation@udel.edu