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Who Was Buzzard Pete?

April 5th, 2013 by Brendan Wolfe · 4 Comments

Portrait of "Buzzard Pete," 1905 (University of Virginia Library Special Collections)"Buzzard Pete with Matches" (2011) by William Dean Reynolds

Buzzard Pete at the University of Virginia, 1905 (Detroit Publishing Company/Library of Congress)

Yesterday I was pointed to the photograph directly above, which appeared on the photoblog Shorpy, and asked: Who was this guy Buzzard Pete? Well, for starters, here’s what Shorpy tells its readers:

Charlottesville, Virginia, circa 1905. “Buzzard Pete.” Evidently a celebrated figure on the University of Virginia campus, fondly recalled decades later in various alumni publications. 8×10 glass negative, Detroit Publishing Co.

A quick Google search turns up some of those alumni publications. For instance, in the 1914 alumni bulletin, the president of the class of 1909 writes of his last-minute decision to attend Finals:

so I persuaded a poor old negro woman to get sick and let me take her to the University Hospital, for which kindness of my part she was to pay my expenses to and from Charlottesville and a pretty good fee on the side.

Well, sir, she “bit,” and after leaving her to the tender mercies of Johnny Neff, I made for that “Big Tent,” and I never had such a good time in my life! I didn’t have to go anywhere else to meet my old friends, for under the shade of that “Big Tent” I met faculty, alumni, students, and even “Uncle Henry.” In fact, everybody but poor old “Buzzard Pete” and the “Co-eds” were there.

While it is true, per Shorpy, that there is a certain fondness here, it also seems to be true that African Americans are little more than children and mascots, at least for this writer. The same attitude is at work in the Virginia Reel magazine, which features the poem “Alumnal Lament (1921).” It ends this way:

A black old man all filled with glee—
A grizzled face I’d like to see;
A cracked old voice I’d like to hear
(Ah, ’twas music to the ear!);
“Yassuh! Yassuh! Hee-hee-hee!”

Old Buzzard Pete I’d like to see—

Again, a certain fondness but one that is wrapped up in a heinous and dehumanizing stereotype. Buzzard Pete appears again in verse, this time in a publication no less celebrated than H. L. Mencken‘s Smart Set; you can read it here. You can also see above how Buzzard Pete’s image was transformed into a postcard and, more recently, into a piece of modern art. (No, I don’t understand the significance of the matches, either.)

I asked an authority on the African American experience at the University of Virginia about Buzzard Pete. On the condition of anonymity he wrote to me the following:

I know little about him. I was once asked to deliver a lecture (1980s or 1990s) for (white) alumni on the subject of black UVA ‘characters’ including “Buzzard Pete.” While conducting preliminary research I encountered photographs of him and others so blatantly racist that I declined to deliver the lecturer; I also felt the lecture invitation was an underhanded means of denigrating African-Americans.

This was one of the few times in my scholarly career that as an African-American I felt so strongly about a racist document that I refused to discuss it with the public. I have never denied that we [the University of Virginia] hold such materials, but sometimes have a visceral reaction to some of them.

He added that photographs of Buzzard Pete have appeared “on racist sites and postings, especially by those opposed to African-American students and faculty at UVA (yes, even in the 21st century).”

So who was Buzzard Pete? As with so many African Americans in Virginia history, we don’t know much. That’s how it is with people whose humanity is not fully recognized—we don’t even know their full names! We can guess, however, that his story—and what it might mean to us today—is more complicated than the folks at Shorpy have thus far suggested.

IN ADDITION: For more on African Americans at the University of Virginia, see this earlier post, “Out of the Shadows,” and “Unearthing Slavery” in the University of Virginia alumni magazine.

UPDATES: Learn more about Buzzard Pete here and here.

IMAGES: Portrait of “Buzzard Pete,” 1905 (University of Virginia Library Special Collections); Buzzard Pete with Matches (2011) by William Dean Reynolds; Buzzard Pete at the University of Virginia, 1905 (Detroit Publishing Company/Library of Congress)

Tags: Virginia History · Visual History

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Judy // Apr 5, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    Pete looks like an amazingly interesting man. I would love to know just what makes Buzzard Pete so happy and unaffected. It must be just the joy of being!!!!!Beautiful!

  • 2 Henry // Apr 5, 2013 at 10:38 pm

    @Judy

    Why on earth would you ASSUME that this man is happy or unaffected? For years as a child in Alabama I was fed the nonsense that the southern blacks were “as happy and simple as children”. Racist tripe!

  • 3 wxman // Apr 6, 2013 at 4:05 pm

    @Henry
    Judy’s comment was anything but racist. It’s a kind statement regarding a photo of someone she doesn’t know and she’s remarking how joyfull he seems. Maybe you need to get a bit more joy in your life. If you did, maybe you wouldn’t be seeing racial insults and negativity everywhere you gaze.

  • 4 Publius // Apr 8, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    Mr Pete there appears to be a lot happier than the writer of this article. Judging from his age he was probably a former slave, and yet the man’s face shows no trace of hatred or rage. I imagine Pete loved people, no matter who they were.

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