These sharp-dressed ladies are sitting on the steps of a building at Atlanta University, circa 1899. I want to know all their stories, in detail.

This particular photo is the work of Atlanta’s Thomas Askew, who lived from around 1850 to 1914. From the Library of Congress and spotted via the NYU Costume Studies Instagram, it was one of several hundred photos collected by W.E.B. Du Bois for a special showcase of African American life at the Paris Exposition of 1900. As this piece at The Root explains, the photos heavily featured African American professionals and were meant as a challenge to the stereotypes of the era.

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These particular women were presumably students at Atlanta University, which was founded in 1865. Judging from this history of the school, they were likely studying to be teachers or librarians. Here’s a larger group from the school, also shot by Askew circa the turn of the century and via the LoC:

Here’s another Askew photo from the collection taken around the same time, featuring a schoolteacher named Mamie Westmoreland.

Even knowing the backstory on the photos, we’re still left with a lot of questions about the individual women featured. What we do know is that our college Facebook pictures look like crap by comparison.


Contact the author at kelly@jezebel.com.

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Photos via the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.