“Davidson College Servants”, 1898 Quips and Cranks.
Authored by Sarah Jane Kline ’21 in “Who is Included? Black Staff and Study at Davidson College“
last updated 02.09.2021
Along the lines of analyzing non-students, I begin with the first yearbook published by Davidson to be digitized, the 1898 Quips and Cranks. Within this yearbook, my first photograph “Davidson College Servants” is located (Davidson College, p. 140). In looking at the photograph, the Black “college servants,” as they are deemed, sit outside indicated by the dirt below their feet and the cinder blocks of the exterior wall of a campus building (“Davidson College servants,” 1898). Thus, these Black staff members are located, and positioned by the photographer, outside of the academic building, but by titling the original image “College Servants” the viewer is led to assume that these men do a significant amount of their work inside academic and college buildings. Consequently, the photograph creates a paradoxical physical relationship between these individuals and the college’s academic spaces; Black staff are forced to exist and be represented on the outskirts of the spaces where “traditional” knowledge production occurs, academic buildings.
Nevertheless, since this photograph was quite literally taken outside of the college’s buildings, its location within the 1898 Quips and Cranks constitutes an important, but limited, spatial claim within a physical piece of Davidson’s academic production. Poems and art surround the portrait of Davidson’s Black “servants” without any recognition or notation on the image (Davidson College, pp. 137–141). This is important for two reasons: first, on a macro level, these “servants” by their inclusion in the text mark Black staff at Davidson essential, to a certain degree, to its existence as a predominantly white academic institution. In fact, the photograph essentially bookends the entirety of the yearbook acting as a frame for everything that came before: Poems, art, faculty, students, clubs, and organizations. Second, through the physical nature of the yearbook, the academic production that surrounds the photograph is literally bound by the Black staff in the photograph necessitating each’s presence within. The physical location of the individuals and the location of the photograph in the yearbook becomes ever more significant in light of the 1896 Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson that, in simple terms, legalized separate but equal status for Black people in the United States. The aftermath of this case and the Jim Crow laws are played out in the following years’ editions of Quips of Cranks in which there are no photographs of the college servants – separate. Even as the socio-political environment of the late 19th century excludes these Black staff members from physical buildings and equal and equitable access, it is in this piece of literature they are represented and studied, despite it being full of photographs of “with the exception of three Pops and one Republican … all democrats” (Davidson College, p. 139).
Similarly, I turn to the inclusion of only the first names of the Black “servants” in the photograph to expose the ways in which this connects to the positions of their bodies. I read the inclusion of first names as a de-emphasis of the importance of the Black workers’ names, since they are not full or last names; contrastingly, this de-emphasis on their full names enhances the role their physical bodies play in the significance of the photograph (“Davidson College servants,” 1898). The Davidson Monthlyreported in 1892 that the superintendent of the grounds decided to only allow a “select few” of servants onto campus “among those favored … are: Holtsclaw, Rich Robinson, Alex Helper, Lewis Allison, Sydney Houston, and Ed Brown” (Davidson College Archives & Special Collections [DCASC], “Always Part of the Fabric: A Supplement, 1865-1900,” n.d.). All of these names, except for Ed Brown, are marked on the “Davidson College Servants” photograph (“Davidson College servants,” 1898). Considering they were some of the only Black workers allowed to enter campus, their bodies hold a representative weight for the workers forced to remain off campus. In looking at the Black staff members’ bodies, I am reminded of Cooper’s (2019) lecture “The Future of Black Studies (in Theory)” in which she notes that individuals who are invested in Black study must consider the “affective investments” in the feelings of Black study “in any generation” (Cooper, 2019). Cooper’s understanding of the feelingsevoked by a generational conception of Black study informs my reading of the discomfort of the bodies in this photograph – the wonky chairs crooked from uneven earth, their eyes looking in different directions as if to avoid eye contact with the photographer, and the tense grip of the man in the first row, second from the left, on his knee, all combine to evoke an unsettling feeling in the viewer worth investigating (“Davidson College servants,” 1898). This feeling evokes what might be to come after this image, likely, a struggle for inclusion, in the buildings, in the academia, and in Black study as a theoretical concept and legitimate practice.