In Our Glory: Black Joy in Jim Crow St. Augustine was organized by students enrolled in my course, ART370: Race and Visual Culture, in the Fall of 2022. A brilliant and ambitious group of young scholars, their insights are apparent in the very title of the exhibition. “In Our Glory” is a reference to one of our class readings, bell hooks’ essay “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life.” In this essential essay, hooks refers to a snapshot of her father, and the presence of family photos on the walls of her home. She sees these walls as spaces of resistance and opposition, writing, “These walls were a space where, in the midst of segregation, the hardship of apartheid, dehumanization could be countered.” Inspiring our research into the St. Augustine Historical Society’s archives, hooks led us to, at first, consider photography and black life in St. Augustine.
This seemingly straightforward line of inquiry led us to other “spaces of resistance” apparent in the photographs we encountered. From Richard Twine’s photographs of the Emancipation Day parade to documentation of churches and performance halls, what became clear to the class was that there was a theme in how we understood these places. These were places of self-expression, of unbridled performance, of jubilation, celebration, and joy. Of course, what also occurred to us were questions: what kind of celebrations and performances took place in these locations? Who were the performers at the Odd Fellows Hall, for instance, or when did the Fisk Jubilee Singers perform at the Ponce de Leon Hotel, and what did they perform?
In our time in the archives of the St. Augustine Historical Society, we acknowledged that some, but not all, such questions could be answered. Archives have limits, we learned, and we may never know the full story, nor (considering one photograph in particular), would we be able to hear the Emancipation Day Parade Richard Twine photographed. Historian Saidiya Hartman coined the phrase “critical fabulations” for just this reason – there are absences in the historical archive, and they might be filled by employing a bit of critical thinking and a dash of imagination. For our exhibition, this led to finding historical recordings of the songs and performers, or contemporary examples and close equivalents, that could give us insight into the sounds and performances that may have filled the spaces documented in the photographs and texts we uncovered. Furthermore, we knew of two contemporary artists – Lenny Foster and Erin Kendrick – whose work has similarly been interested in new ways of seeing St. Augustine’s history.
Uncovering items such as Carrie Johnson’s self-released cassette of acapella spirituals, and placing it alongside archival and contemporary works, was not only a fulfilling educational project, but reinforced to all involved that there remain new perspectives for understanding St. Augustine’s history. In particular, the class was excited to open paths of research into the history of Black churches, and to consider the musical history of Lincolnville, all while expanding and being grateful for this community’s rich and resilient history.
Prof. Chris Balaschak
Chair of Visual Arts, Flagler College