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  • Tuskegee’s Silent Histories: The Jennie C. Lee Papers and the Visual Archive
  • Christa Holm Vogelius

Jennie Cheatham Lee, the second choir director at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, served at the historically black college during a crucial moment in its history. During her tenure from 1903 to 1928, the institute transitioned away from the leadership of Booker T. Washington, who was its first teacher and president from 1881 until his death in 1915. Like Lee’s alma mater, Fisk University, Tuskegee trained teachers who would serve southern rural schools and also helped shape musical traditions in the early part of the twentieth century. It was under Lee’s leadership that the Tuskegee Institute Singers rose to national recognition and brought widespread attention to the school, leading the way for the group’s consideration as “one of the finest college choirs in the country” under William Levi Dawson, its director from 1931 to 1956 (Pool 90). But in spite of Lee’s centrality to the school’s musical mission, not much is known about her life and work (Brooks 320–27).

Lee’s personal archive in the A. S. Williams III Americana Collection at the University of Alabama offers a chance to remedy this lack but also suggests some of the challenges that gender and media pose to the reconstruction of history. The Lee papers are largely photographic, made up primarily of the disassembled pages of scrapbooks Lee kept during her years at Tuskegee. The album’s candid images and ephemera capture the day-to-day lives of primarily female Tuskegee students, teachers, and administrators—including trips to the beach, hat-making classes, and group photos of the choir and singers—and are supplemented only by a small number of textual documents, most of them printed programs rather than personal manuscripts. Lee’s own writing is sparse. In this sense, the archive, gendered female and encoded visually, offers a clear counter-balance [End Page 48] to the official Tuskegee documents, which were written disproportionately by male administrators and teachers. It is, as Ellen Gruber Garvey writes of the American scrapbook, “a window into the lives and thoughts of people who did not respond to the world with their own writing,” but it also offers perspectives into alternative institutional and literary histories (4).

These images argue powerfully that there is more to institutions like Tuskegee than their printed tracts, treatises, and mission statements. At the same time, however, they pose problems precisely because they relate to other images rather than to writing and thereby refuse to serve as mere support for textual evidence. The perspective this visual collection provides is that of an aspirational Tuskegee, a Tuskegee where the arts were not primarily utilitarian and where educational successes could not be measured only in the professional employability of its students. But in the power struggle between image and text, these scrapbook pages have any number of points against them: they are fragmented and disassembled rather than whole and conclusive; they are kept by a female teacher rather than a male administrator; and they are archival and largely cloistered rather than printed and widely disseminated. Yet my argument here is that writing a full history of institutions such as Tuskegee—and the literary histories they enable us to trace—requires us to give space to precisely these types of archives.

Shawn Michelle Smith argues that “visual culture not only reflects but also shapes the racialized formation of American identities. Archives of photographs with distinct visual genealogies function as sites through which narratives of national belonging and exclusion are created” (5). What, then, are the “visual genealogies” of the Lee archive? And what “narratives of national belonging” does this collection participate in? With a visual language that draws from the aspirational trappings of middle-class portraiture, Lee’s images present a stark contrast to the social documentary angle more typically visible in other textual and visual representations of early African American schools.

verbal and visual histories of the tuskegee institute

Although no detailed history of Tuskegee’s choir program or its faculty exists for the period prior to William Dawson’s tenure, it is clear that music played a significant role at...