African-American teachers at the turn of the century taught in shacks, their classrooms were crowded, and they earned about half the salaries paid to their white counterparts. Yet they overcame huge obstacles to ensure their students received an education. Their story will be available soon via the internet.

Thanks to a $241,306 grant to the University of Virginia Library from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, library employees will digitize and put on the world wide web a collection of 4,000 photographs by Jackson Davis, a white Virginia native and educator.

“The photos show that, even faced with insurmountable obstacles, people still were attempting to better their odds,” said Michael F. Plunkett, the library’s director of special collections. “The buildings appear to be unheated, obviously very poorly put together, and it does appear to me pretty remarkable to see blacks trying to overcome the odds to make sure their children were educated.”

Davis, who died in 1947, spent much of his career studying Southern educational policies and traveling around the region to research their effect.

According to the 1917 Negro Year Book, for instance, Virginia spent $11.47 per capita for the education of white children, but paid only $3.20 to educate black children.

Davis, who was a field agent for the New York-based General Education Board, pushed for better relations between the races and promoted regional centers of education in the South. Through his photographs, Davis recorded sheds that often served as schools, documented crowded classrooms, and bore witness to the poverty that blacks lived in, as well as to their determination to overcome it.

Davis, who served as principal of public schools in Williamsburg, Va., and held administrative posts in Marion and Henrico counties in Virginia, had plenty of opportunities to bear witness to the sorry conditions of minority public schools.

He was a member of the Virginia Board of Education in 1909 and 1910, and worked with rural black schools for the state Department of Education from 1910 to 1915. Davis then worked for the General Education Board, where he served mostly in the Southern states.

One year after his death, Davis’ daughter placed the photographs with the University of Virginia Library, where scholars and researchers have been using them for the past 50 years.

“Students and faculty both at the University of Virginia and other universities and colleges throughout the United States and the world will be able to use the images in research and course work from their homes and offices,” said Plunkett. “The database will be a valuable research tool for advanced high school students studying African-American history, genealogists preparing family research, and other independent researchers interested in the historical era.”

University of Virginia Library

Institute of Museum and Library Services