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

Image Picker for Section 0

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

If you wander into the Winterthur University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation student lab this week or next, you will see the Class of 2021 fastidiously documenting and treating approximately 300 photographs from Fisk University. These photographs, which are primarily silver gelatin developed-out prints, range in size and subject. However, the majority are part of Fisk's W.E.B Du Bois Collection and document 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. Today the photographic collections can be found in the student lab at Winterthur.

Across the students' desks, you may see 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 varies, with many inscribed with the owner's return address or the stamps of newspaper publishers. As students carefully and methodically reduce years of dirt and grime from these photographs, they are documenting 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. We encourage you to stop by the student lab and see this national treasure.  Please contact me if you are interested in doing so.

— 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: 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).

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In the ARTC lab on campus, students are preserving images of African American service members in World War I. Visitors are welcome to watch the work in progress.

​In the ARTC lab on campus, students are preserving images of African American service members in World War I. Visitors are welcome to watch the work in progress.

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