A matter of pride
The Bentley Historical Library recently acquired some of the earliest images of African American students living off campus, thanks to a gift from Dr. Sharon F. Patton. The former faculty member donated her grandfather’s photo collection to the library. As a law student from 1908-11, Richard Hill Jr. photographed fellow African American students in his fraternity and around town. Read more about the images in the Fall 2022 issue of the Bentley magazine Collections. The captions here are sourced from an article by Brian Williams. The Bentley archivists welcome your help in identifying Hill’s subjects. Use this form to contact an archivist if you recognize someone. Click on each image to enlarge.
Richard Hill Jr. (left) attended U-M Law from 1909-11. He excelled academically and was recognized for his oratory and debate skills. A proud alum, he kept a scrapbook from his years at U-M containing photographs of his Law School class, campus events like the Senior Smoker, and the freshman-sophomore spring games, along with candid photos of classmates and a few images of himself. Many of the candid images were taken in and around the off-campus boarding house where he resided at 1017 Catherine St.
1017 Catherine St.
Richard Hill Jr. (bottom left) is pictured here with a group at his boarding house, 1017 Catherine St. After graduating, Hill eventually moved to Chicago to practice law and remained in practice for more than 50 years. The house on Catherine Street fell to the wrecking ball in 1963.
Preserving the past
Some 80 years after he graduated, Hill’s granddaughter, Dr. Sharon F. Patton, arrived in Ann Arbor as an associate professor with a joint appointment in the History of Art Department and the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies. Among her possessions were Hill’s beloved scrapbook and photographs, including this one of some unidentified men on the front steps at 1017 Catherine St.
Prior to coming to Michigan, Dr. Patton was chief curator at the Studio Museum of Harlem, a leading research center for Afroamerican art. As a historian, she knew her grandfather’s photographs were significant. After she arrived in Ann Arbor in the fall of 1991, the first place she wanted to find was the fraternity house where her grandfather lived while he was a law student. This image features two unidentified women with an Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity member.
In 1970, U-M established the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies, a direct result of student demands during the first Black Action Movement strike in 1970. Dr. Patton was named its director in 1996. Things had come a long way since 1908, when six students living at 1017 Catherine St. began the official process to establish the Epsilon Chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. Here, Richard Hill Jr. (front row, far right) enjoys the fraternity banquet on April 10, 1910. (Photo by Alford S. Lyndon.)
The Epsilon Chapter at Michigan was chartered April 10, 1909, the fifth chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha. The house at 1017 Catherine was the focal point, operating as the chapter house in its nascent days. It was also the site of the Fourth Annual Convention of Alpha Phi Alpha in 1911. This photo by Alford S. Lyndon captures a group at an Alpha Phi House party in 1911.
A prominent address
Dr. Patton reached out to the Bentley in the spring of 2022 to explore the possibility of donating her grandfather’s photos. She began by sharing some examples of the digitized images. Bentley archivists were ecstatic when they saw the photos. They were the earliest photographs the team had seen of African American students living off campus.
Three cool cats
“The Bentley holds earlier images of African American students, senior portraits, and some group photos, but they are usually formal, posed photos,” says Bentley archivist Greg Kinney. “Hill’s photos offer a significantly different glimpse of informal African American life off-campus.” Does anyone recognize these early members of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity?
Senior smoker, 1911
Alpha Phi Alpha would be the only African American fraternity on campus until 1921, when the Phi chapter of Omega Psi Phi was established, followed a year later by the Sigma chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi. This image captures students at a “senior smoker” social event in 1911.
Putting a name to a face
Thanks to the generosity of Dr. Patton’s donation, the Bentley received 50 images relating to Hill in his Michigan days (pictured here with an unidentified woman). Beyond giving the archive the earliest known images of Alpha Phi Alpha members at Michigan, some of the other photos have helped identify new names for the Bentley African American Student Project database. Amateur historians also may want to explore U-M’s Inclusive History Project.