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The Black Renaissance in Washington, DC, 1910-1937
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Addison Scurlock
June 19, 1883-December 16, 1964

Addison Scurlock, founder of the Scurlock Photographic Studio, took portraits of such notables as educators Booker T. Washington and Mary McLeod Bethune, composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, engineer Archie Alexander, political leader W.E.B. DuBois, former first lady Mamie Eisenhower, singer Billy Eckstine, physician Charles R. Drew, opera singer Madame Lillian Evanti and poet Sterling Brown. This highly respected photographer also documented key moments in Washington, D.C. history.

Addison Scurlock was born on June 19, 1883 in Fayettesville, North Carolina. He graduated from high school there, which was a significant achievement for an African-American of the time. In 1900, he moved with his family to Washington, D.C. His father, George Clay Scurlock, who had previously run unsuccessfully for the North Carolina Senate, worked as a messenger for the U.S. Treasury Department, while studying law and later opened a law office on the 1100 block of U Street.

Addison Scurlock began his career as a photographer as an apprentice to Moses P. Rice, who had studios on Pennsylvania Avenue. Between, 1900 and 1904, he learned the basics of photographic portraiture and the entire range of laboratory work.

In 1904, Scurlock started his own business at his parents’ home on the 500 block of Florida Avenue. He focused on photographing students at Howard University, M Street and Armstrong high schools, and black universities and high schools throughout the South. In 1907, he won a gold medal for photography at the Jamestown Exposition. He opened the Scurlock Studio at 900 U Street (the African-American community’s theater district) in 1911 and concentrated on portraiture and general photography. His clients included brides, achievers, conventioneers, and socialites. A 1976 Washington Post article by Jacqueline Trescott read "For years one of the marks of arriving socially in black Washington was to have your portrait hanging in Scurlock’s window." His portraiture is described in Washington History by author Jane Freundel Levy as follows:

"There is, however, a Scurlock ‘look,’ a very high technical quality in which light plays evenly and attractively across the features of the subjects. The portraits are carefully retouched to mask eye circles or crow’s feet and to create even-textured complexions…Perhaps the most distinctive hallmark of the Scurlock photograph is the dignity, the uplifting quality of the demeanor of every person, captured by photographers who clearly saw each subject as above the ordinary."

In addition to studio portraits, he mastered the use of the panoramic camera and shot conventions, banquets, and graduations.

Within a decade, he had earned a national reputation. He was the official photographer of Howard University until his death in 1964 and recorded all aspects of university life. Howard, at that time, trained nearly half of the nation’s African-American physicians and over 90 percent of its lawyers.

Scurlock also produced a series of portraits of African-American leaders that historian Carter G. Woodson distributed to African-American schools nationwide. One of his most significant photographs was that of Marion Anderson singing in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. A famous story told about him is that while shooting President Coolidge with the Dunbar Cadet Corp on the White House Lawn, he walked up to the President and moved him to a another position for the sake of a better picture much to the dismay of the Secret Service.

Scurlock and his wife, Mamie Estelle, lived just a few blocks from the studio. Mamie served as the studio’s business manager. They had four sons — Addison, Robert, George and Walter. After graduating from Howard University, Robert and George joined the business. The studio served as a news service to the African-American press including the Tribune, African-American, Norfolk Journal and Guide, Pittsburgh Courier, Cleveland Call and Post, and the Amsterdam News. Addison was also involved with the D.C. African-American community, and in 1930 he initiated and operated a newsreel on African-American activities for the Lichtman chain of Washington theaters.

Robert served for four years in the Army Air Force during World War II and toured Europe, especially Italy, with his camera. George did not pass the Army physical and took over the non-portrait work during the war, while Addison continued to concentrate on portraiture. After the war, Robert returned to the family business.

From 1948 until 1952, Robert and George managed the Capital School of Photography. Among their students were future Washington Post photographers and a young Jacqueline Bouvier.

Robert opened Custom Craft Studios in 1952 and became a pioneer in the processing of color photography. He did work for such national magazines as Ebony, Our World, Life, and Look. His photographs of 14th Street during the 1968 riots following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, for example, were published in Life magazine.

In 1960, Addison was awarded a citation by the You Street Association as the oldest business on the street. In 1964, Robert bought the Scurlock studio from his father and purchased a studio on Connecticut Avenue. The Connecticut Avenue studio closed in the early 1970s and the 9th Street studio was demolished in 1983 for the Metro system.

Addison died on December 16, 1964 at the age of 81. His wife died at the age of 92 on July 20, 1977. Robert died after a stroke on December 1, 1994. Addison was recognized posthumously with his first one-man exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1976. Robert selected the works in the show. He said of his father:

"My father was a member of a gone breed, a real painstaking artisan. He believed in art not this snap-and-run technique some commercial photographers use today. Washington is still a mecca for important people and we are simply trying to continue his vision of contribution to history."


Levy, Jane Freundel. "The Scurlock Studio." Washington History. Spring 1989, pp. 41-57.

Sullivan, George. Black Artists in Photography, 1840-1940. New York: Cobble Hill Books, 1996.

Beth Anne Meyer
Librarian, Art Division

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The Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C., 1920-1930s
http://www.dclibrary.org/blkren/ | last updated June 20, 2003