Pictures with A Purpose

Tuesday February 13, 2024

The newest black initiative sign on Inn Street

NEWBURYPORT – To celebrate Black History Month, the city has installed its latest edition of black initiative signage at the playground on Inn Street. The sign, one of about a dozen going up around the city, will be unveiled by Mayor Sean Reardon at 4 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 27.
This sign focuses on the many photography studios that operated downtown in the 19th and early 20th century on State and Pleasant Streets.
The photos included on the sign were recovered from a basement on Liberty Street in 2003. They depict white, black, and Asian American people of all ages. Most of the subjects were not identified, but a few were, including two photos of a married couple, Edward and Mary Richardson. He was a laborer and a teamster who drove a job wagon.
Entitled ‘Pictures with a Purpose,’ the sign shows the significant role studio photography played for Black Americans within a society that often disparaged them.
The abolitionist leader Frederick Douglas, who spoke once at the Prospect Church in Newburyport, had about 160 studio portraits taken of him, according to the sign. He wrote that photography was a great democratic force now available even to the “humblest servant girl.”
“Dressed in fine clothes, black people consciously shaped their own images and identifies for their families and communities, visually countering negative mainstream stereotypes such as those in derogatory minstrel shows so popular in Newburyport at the time,” the sign states.
At City Hall performances in the 1800s, white musicians portrayed black people, painting their faces black as they sang and danced to racist songs, the sign states.
In contrast, the sign states that the studio photographs shown on the sign “reflect the pride and dignity of Black Americans.”
Other signs, erected by the city and the Newburyport Black Initiative, honor the mostly black neighborhood of Guinea and the anti-slavery activists in the city. The sign about the Guinea neighborhood stands on the Clipper City Rail Trail, and the sign honoring the black activists was erected in Brown Square near the statute of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

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