Houston, Texas: 1911. Black and white photograph measuring 5” x 7” on 8” x 10” cardboard mount. Very good photograph on good mount: a few small stains to photo, corner wear to mount; inked notations on photo and verso.
This photograph combines the work of a Texas-based African American photographer with documentation of a nearly forgotten segregated school in Houston as well as its principal. The photo depicts 28 students of the 7th grade class of Houston's Langston School (also known as “Langston Grade School” and “Langston Col*red School”) along with a man we presumed to be a teacher. Thanks to an inscription on the verso, “7th Grade/W.J. Smith,” we were able to extrapolate the name of the school and that the man seated in the front row, W.J. Smith, was the school's principal in addition to teaching 7th grade.
We learned a bit about the school and W.J. Smith from contemporary newspaper accounts. Langston was located at 2309 German Street and as of 1904 the school had ten rooms and around 530 students. According to 1915's Red Book of Houston: A Compendium of Social, Professional, Religious, Educational and Industrial Interests of Houston’s Col*red Population the school was named for John M. Langston “who was the first col*red man to graduate from Oberlin College and who spent a long, useful life, occupying many positions of honor and trust with the greatest satisfaction.” Langston served students who lived from Bayou South to McKinney Avenue and also took students from the Fifth Ward for 6th and 7 th grade. The schoolhouse was partially destroyed by arson in 1906 and students temporarily used the Baptist church across the street for classrooms. As of 1912, Langston hosted night classes as part of a city-wide effort to have continuing education for adult African Americans at the various segregated schools. One class at Langston was on “cooking for ne*ro women who are already engaged in cooking and who wish to improve quality of their work.”
W.J. Smith was the school's principal and 7th grade teacher as early as 1904 and as late as 1915. Smith was active in the Col*red Teachers' State Association of Texas (CTSA) and also conducted a summer teacher training course; he presented a paper on that work at the CTSA annual convention in 1901, “The Summer Normal, Its Advantages and Disadvantages.” Smith was clearly a competent and committed teacher and administrator as evidenced by the text of a speech he gave to thank a Houston socialite for her efforts on behalf of the school as well as her facilitating the opportunity for Langston students to give a demonstration of its domestic science department:
“This is a progressive age . . . our education systems must be so adjusted that the education our boys and girls receive shall be in keeping with the general trend of the scheme of life. If you are in need of a cook, you need a good one . . . it takes education to do this . . .
For the ne*ro youth there are but two ways for him to be trained into that usefulness that one person bears another as employee and employer and they are found either in the school room or in the white man's home itself . . .
I believe that . . . col*red schools should receive ever greater consideration than the white schools. The reasons are obvious, since his opportunities are less and the requirements are greater and in order to make him more efficient the opportunities must be increased.”
The photographer, C.G. Harris, whose Galveston stamp is on the verso, went on to some fame as the photographer for the aforementioned Red Book. With an office in Houston's Freedmen's Town, Harris would ride his motorized bicycle to “answer calls by wheel and make photos anywhere in Harris or Galveston Counties. Satisfaction guaranteed.”
Also of note is the interesting inscription on the verso in a hand different from the Smith inscription which points out “Anita, third from left, second row, marked with a t” and the mount's verso tells her story:
“Anita was 13 and was valedictorian of her class. At 15 she held a [6?] year first grade certificate and at 16 she was an honor graduate and got her diploma. She held high honors all through her school and college career – she was always on the honor roll. (God bless her soul.)”
Despite our best efforts, we could not discover any more information about the accomplished Anita.
A fantastic photograph showcasing a Houston African American school, its committed principal, and the work of an important Black photographer. Very good. Item #6821