By Mary M. Marshall, Ph.D.
Since September 2012, I’ve had the privilege of doing volunteer work at Chimpanzee Productions with founder and CEO Thomas Allen Harris. I have assisted Harris, an award winning Filmmaker/Writer/Director/Producer, on two projects: Digital Diaspora Family Reunion (DDFR) and an upcoming documentary, “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People (TALD).” Sharing my family photos with DDFR (see “Dr. Marshall’s Photo Mission“) and researching photographers for TALD afforded me the opportunity to share with Harris that many of my family’s photographs were taken by a relatively unknown 19th Century African American father and son team from Augusta, GA. I was overjoyed when Harris invited me to write an article on my research about these enterprising Black photographers. I am grateful to him for the invitation and to members of TALD team for their technical assistance with the layout.
My interest in the father and son photographer team of Robert Williams (born 1834) and Robert E. Williams (1858 – 1937) emerged as I researched my family history and explored the many 16×20 portraits and 4×6 ambrotypes of my maternal grandmother’s family, also named Williams. I discovered many of my ancestors’ photographs were taken by the photographers, whose studio bore the name R. Williams & Son. More than a few of the smaller 4 x 6 pictures were stamped/imprinted with “R. Williams & Son (Star Gallery)” or “R. Williams & Co.” on the back of the photo. Whether “R. Williams & Son/Co.” singularly or “R. Williams & Son/Star Gallery,” most had the same 705 Broad Street, Augusta, GA. address imprinted on them. Others had a Marbury Street address which was also located near Broad Street.
While my family has a substantial collection of photographs/portraits by R. Williams & Son (Co./Star Gallery) called “The Fig Tree Collection,” the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the University of Georgia Libraries has a collection of 86 Glass plate negatives and positive prints. Prints from the latter may be viewed online at Digital Library of Georgia. They appear within this blog in black and white. All other photographs are the property of The Fig Tree Collection with the exception of those tagged otherwise. Photographs from The Fig Tree Collection plus those from Hargrett confirm Robert Williams & Son’s versatility in subject matter. The Fig Tree Collection depicts formal portraits of the Williams Family, one African American family in Augusta, Richmond County, GA. They vary in size and type. The Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Book collection consists of photographs depicting “dwellings and domestic chores, rituals of baptism, harvesting and transporting cotton, vehicles and transportation, and children and family life.”
Using oral history, the imprint/photographer’s logo on the back of many of my family’s photos, a local African American newspaper, The Augusta City Directory, Ancestry.com and other internet sources, I uncovered even more information about R. Williams & Son, their family, photography business and my family. I learned where the photographers lived, the level of education and kind of work they did. For example, the 1850 Census showed Robert, Sr., a mulatto, was a “Free Inhabitant” of Augusta, Richmond County, GA. Given that most blacks were not entered on the Census until 1870, it is not surprising that they are missing from the 1860 Census. However, they are recorded on the 1870 Census, living in Augusta’s Ward 3. Robert, Sr. is head of household, has married Amelia Williams (born circa 1832) in 1858, fathered Robert E. Williams and working as a “daguere artist.” It further revealed he owned real estate worth $1,000.00, which would be valued at approximately $17,543.86 in 2013.
During this post-Reconstruction era, blacks and whites still lived next door to one another in many areas of Augusta, particularly in parts of Ward 3.
However, this portion of Ward 3 where the Williams’ family lived, called Springfield Village (now Springfield Village Park), was largely African American. It was and remains two blocks from the main business district of Augusta–the courthouse, newspaper office, the cotton market, banks, restaurants and stores for general shopping.
Springfield Village Park was the heart of the African American community in 19th Century Augusta and the location of the historic and landmark Springfield Baptist Church, founded in 1787. This church served the religious, educational, political and social needs of the African American community; and, it was the place in which Morehouse College was founded as well as the Georgia Equal Rights Association. Springfield Baptist Church (SBC) and Springfield Village Park have been restored and are on the list of National Landmark Sites.
I believe the baptism photos below show early baptisms in the Savannah River by pastors of Springfield Baptist Church during the late 19th Century. SBC was located just a few blocks from the Savannah River.
SBC was also the religious home of four generations of my family beginning in the 1890s with my great grandmother, Mary E. Williams, and continuing with my generation. We were all baptized there; and, my mother’s graveside service was presided over by Rev. E. T. Martin, the last minister to serve the church before the current pastor.
Photographs from Robert E. Williams’ studio were proudly displayed throughout my family’s home. These portraits, 16 x 20 in size, were beautiful and yet haunting to my child’s eyes. It seemed wherever I turned my head to get away from their watch; the eyes in the pictures appeared more open and focused on me. My child’s mind was filled with stories about their lives so it was easy to bring them to life, often causing me to run as though they had come off the wall in chase. My grandmother and great aunts loved talking about the family, the growth of the African American community and Augusta, the good and bad. They freely shared political, educational and social views with my siblings and me.
I was a sponge soaking up their stories while learning our family and the community’s history. Thus, when I became the family archivist/historian, the serious task of documenting and researching our history was easier than I imagined. Our 1861 family bible, collection of photographs, letters, books and newspapers yielded family history and also documented that of other Augustans. It was while looking at the family section of our bible that I saw the name Robert Williams and wondered: “Is this THE Robert Williams who took the photographs that captured my imagination and sometimes frightened me? Are we related?”
These questions grew stronger over time as I found photos that one might label “photographers’ proofs.” I also discovered photos with other “marks” on them that suggested a possible connection between photographer R. Williams & Son and my family. It has been a labor of love over the last twenty plus years as I researched and and obtained as much information on R. Williams & Son as I did on my family: the Mary Ella & Willie Williams family I knew and of which I am a member.
The family’s collection also included tintypes, ambrotypes and postcard photos. They fed my desire to know the photographers R. Williams & Son. Here, too, the photographer’s logo/imprint and information recorded on the back of photographs provided detailed information for me.
The imprint on the above photograph of Mary F. Williams is that of J. H. Williams, and his studio is located on Marbury Street, Augusta, and GA. While I haven’t been able to identify J. W. Williams, the 1880 Census revealed Robert, Sr. and Robert Jr. lived on Marbury Street. This suggests there is yet another Williams’ photographer to be unearthed.
Robert, Williams, Sr. was the first black photographer in Augusta. Various sources, including the 1870 Census, indicate that he worked from 1870 to about 1880, honing his craft in the shop of white photographer John Usher. The 1880 Census depicts Robert, Sr., working as a laborer; and Robert, Jr. as the photographer. Although still working out of John Usher’s studio, Robert, Jr.’s skills developed to the point where he was later written into Georgia’s history as one of the best black photographers in Augusta.
According to The Augusta City Directories, 1872 to 1891, John Usher operated a studio at 206 Broad Street. By 1888, the AD indicates that the Williams’s are now primary owners, and the studio is recorded as R. Williams & Son. This listing remains in the Augusta Directory until 1908. Two years later, the 1910 Census reveals that both Robert, Sr. and Robert, Jr. have retired. Although the AD and other records suggest father and son operated the business from 1873 to 1898, this is not entirely accurate. John Usher is listed from 1872 to 1891, and Robert E. Williams, Jr. is listed from 1889 to 1891. As stated earlier, Census records reveal Robert, Sr. worked as a photographer from 1870 to 1880 before becoming a laborer. He clearly continued to mentor his son as Robert, Jr. began his career in 1880 and continued until at least 1908. By 1910, the Census list both men as “retired.”
Like his father, Robert, Jr. mentors and teaches his son photography. So, while the 1910 Census shows both father and son older as being retired, it lists Charles Williams, the 26 year-old son of Robert, Jr., and grandson of Robert, Sr. as “photographer.” This strongly suggests that R. Williams & Son continued as a business for a period after 1908.
This last photo of Armenia R. Williams was probably taken between 1916 and 1918. She was my great aunt who graduated from Haines Normal and Industrial Institute in 1916 and attended Paine College, both located in Augusta. Although this photo is not by the Williams’s, the photographers who took it, the Baumann Brothers, may have been associated with them. The only conclusion I can draw from this photo is that my family had the financial means to continue having professional photographs taken even after the father, son and grandson photography team of R. Williams & Son closed their doors.
Finally, photos from my family’s collection (The Fig Tree Collection), from The Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, oral history and the Augusta City Directories have given me a more complete picture of R. Williams & Son. The Williams’s—father, son and grandson—made an enormous contribution to Georgia’s photographic history in general, and the Augusta African American photographic history in particular. I continue to research their lives in hopes of learning even more about them and their possible genealogical connection to my family.