A couple of weeks ago now, the photography blog Shorpy published an image of a man identified only as “Buzzard Pete.” With the help of Coy Barefoot, we identified him as Peter Briggs (1828–1912), a former slave who worked as a gardener at the University of Virginia. Some readers reacted positively to these images of the man also known as Uncle Peter, while others—including a faculty member at UVa. who wished not to be named—recoiled at the way they reinforced racially demeaning tropes. And, as is to be expected, we received some pushback on that front. Above are two additional photographs of Briggs; judge them as you will.
Now Barefoot has written again with more information, this time from the university’s yearbook, Corks and Curls, the many editions of which he is now in the process of digitizing.
Wanted to share this with you. I’ve attached a pdf of an excerpt from the 1890 Corks and Curls (the third edition of the series) in which students profile various African-American men who were familiar to them as members of the University community. The final profile is that of Mr. Briggs.
These profiles illustrate the racist viewpoint of the student author, to be certain, but what I found most interesting is this opening line in the profile of Mr. Bullocks: “Of the many odd and picturesque characters of the negro race that are to be met with everywhere around the University, but that are now fast passing away before the superior intellectual culture and proud assertion of equal rights on the part of their descendants …” WOW. that’s fascinating.
And the end of that profile says “Berkeley is a silent man and rarely speaks unless spoken to; but when he does become talkative, it is the talk of the good old ante-bellum darkey, not the polished small talk and chit-chat of the present generation of colored gentleman.”
I just find this fascinating how these two generations of African-American men are portrayed. And in that last passage, the author even puts in italics the words “darkey” vs “colored gentlemen.”
The student is obviously aware of the evolving place of people of color in society, but use these sketches as a way of celebrating the older ante-bellum generation— and by comparison, showing dismay and/or disdain for the new behavior of a younger generation. really interesting.
After the jump I’ve included images of the pages from which Barefoot quotes. Click on them for larger, more readable views.
IMAGES: Portrait of “Uncle Peter” Briggs, postcard, undated (University of Virginia Library, Special Collections); “Uncle Peter’s Laugh,” postcard, 1905 (University of Virginia Library, Special Collections)