Picture Imperfect Gallery

March 01, 2002 4 min read
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Schoolboys, circa 1895, captured in a moment of patriotism? Hardly, claims Margolis. Like thousands of other youngsters in similar facilities, these students at the Albuquerque Indian School were subjected to a curriculum designed, he says, “to convert Native American children into white people.” The uniforms stripped kids of their culture and, in a strange twist, made them resemble the cavalry who defeated Indian warriors.
——Still Picture Branch (NWDNS), National Archives

In this hand-tinted 1896 photo, most people see an archetype of schools where “everyone was all-American, all-white, and of the same mind, where you could pray and everybody learned their ABCs,” notes Margolis. What viewers can’t see is that children at the Soper School in North Dakota spoke German, Swedish, and Norwegian and, like many kids in one-room schoolhouses, probably learned from a teacher poorly trained to handle multiple grade levels.
——Fred Hultstrand History in Pictures Collection, NDRIS-NDSU, Fargo

In contrast to other photos taken at the turn of the 20th century, this image of a big public school in Hancock, Michigan, is far from formal. Kids are scattered about and lean casually against a telephone pole, suggesting a certain urban toughness, Margolis points out. In setting up this shot, he adds, the photographer was more concerned with the building than the kids: The image was to become a postcard boasting the civic achievement of creating such an edifice.
——American Memory, Library of Congress

During home economics, female students at Penasco High in Taos County, New Mexico, make toys for Christmas 1941. This most likely was a class of Mexican American girls who were taught traditional “women’s work” such as sewing and cooking. Unfortunately, the skills often were ill-suited to their communities, where women rarely had the luxury of staying at home.
——Still Picture Branch (NWDNS), National Archives

As is often the case with historic photos, little is known about this century-old image. But the “hidden curriculum,” socialization lessons that all schools teach, is quite evident. The girls’ orderliness speaks volumes about discipline and obedience, notes Margolis, and the ornate archway portrays education as a hallowed endeavor to which only a few hold the key.
——American Memory, Library of Congress

A search of the images available on the National Archives’ online collection yields only a handful of old photos of African American schoolchildren. Fewer images were taken of black kids than whites, and few were preserved, says Margolis, who therefore urges students of history to think about what is missing. A photo of black students in 1939 in Montgomery, Alabama, shows a separate, though decidedly equal-looking, classroom.
——Still Picture Branch (NWDNS), National Archives

The photographic memory of American school life fails miserably when it comes to children with disabilities, according to Margolis. Only one image exists in the online Library of Congress and National Archives collections, he says. Taken in Salem, Oregon, in 1941, it depicts blind girls industriously at work in an art class.
——Still Picture Branch (NWDNS), National Archives

The Farm Security Administration, whose photographers captured compelling images of Depression-era devastation, shifted focus during World War II. Pictures like this one of migrant farm workers’ children showed well-fed students in well- stocked classrooms to promote patriotism and reassure viewers that Americans were safe and happy.
——Department of Agriculture, Office of Information

Although this 1941 photo of Hispanic children in New Mexico most likely was taken to portray American diversity as a strength, the nun hints at a different story: Mexican American families often opted for Catholic schools to avoid public ones, where children were punished for speaking Spanish, says Margolis. In an odd case, this school actually had been deeded over to the state for reasons that are unclear, but the several nuns who still taught there “naturally express the Catholic way of life,” according to an accompanying note.
——Still Picture Branch (NWDNS), National Archives

These Japanese American children were moved to an internment camp in Manzanar, California, during World War II. They were photographed under the auspices of the U.S. Office of War Information in 1942. As Margolis writes in his article “Class Pictures,” images of such facilities were taken to “demonstrate to the world that United States relocation camps were much different from concentration or POW camps.”
——Still Picture Branch (NWDNS), National Archives

No photos of Japanese children show up in the major online archives from before 1941, according to Margolis. After that, a slew of images appear by photographers who worked for the Office of War Information. This seemingly patriotic picture was taken at an integrated San Francisco school on the eve of Japanese Americans’ departure for internment camps. An accompanying caption points out that relocated children would be able to continue their education.
——Still Picture Branch (NWDNS), National Archives

An unusual image from 1912 shows a racially integrated class in Espy, Pennsylvania. And the teacher’s body language—her arm reaching toward the children—suggests acceptance. It’s possible, Margolis explains, that the school wasn’t embracing equality at all but serving the major local employer, a coal company that needed to educate workers’ children. Or, he offers, the white- looking students were immigrants whose “otherness” set them apart and, therefore, made it acceptable for them to learn with nonwhites.
——The New York Public Library Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations


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