Creating the Founders' Tribute image

Creating the Founders' Tribute image

What do you get when you blend a self-taught artist with a passion for African American studies and the bond of Alpha Kappa Alpha membership?  A determined pursuit to craft an image capturing the essence of the Alpha Kappa Alpha founders together in 1908.

In the age of instant selfies and photo-sharing, it's hard to imagine a time when capturing a moment wasn't just a pocket-sized gadget away. So much of our daily lives is documented in photos, shared in TikToks, posted on Instagram and Facebook, and fills our phones to capacity. But, rewind the clock, and you'll find a fascinating nugget of history: the founders of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, those trailblazing women who laid the groundwork for sisterhood excellence, didn't have the luxury of posing for a quick Instagram-worthy shot.

In 1908, the landscape of photography was completely different from the world we know. Picture this: the first photograph graced the world back in 1825, courtesy of some French ingenuity. Fast forward to 1888, and Kodak #1, the OG of commercial cameras, made its grand entrance. And then, the real game-changer—the Kodak Brownie—stepped into the scene in 1900. Suddenly, capturing Kodak moments wasn't just a hobby for the wealthy elite; the middle class could now join the photo fun too.

Despite the innovations in cameras, there are not any photographs of all 16 founders of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority together in 1908. Thinking back to those early 1900s, the idea of recording every casual hangout wasn't the norm. Photography was often reserved for more formal occasions, and the thought of posing for a portrait might not have crossed their minds in the midst of establishing a sisterhood legacy.

A Google search for Alpha Kappa Alpha Founders provides a results page that offers information about the founders and copied pictures of artwork made of each founder later in their lives. Undoubtedly, you will find this image taken in 1910 of seven of the founders, “the Sophomores” (Ethel Jones Mowbray, Norma Boyd, Alice Murray, Joanna Berry Shields, Sara Merriweather Nutter, Carrie Snowden, and Harriet Terry). 

I wonder what was happening that day that caused them to stop and pose for a photo? Unfortunately, the reason for the photo may be lost to time; photographs in 1910 weren’t date stamped.  I have not been able to locate where the original photo is housed.  Perhaps it contains a handwritten note on the back?

When I first found this photo and saw who was in the photograph, I wondered where everyone else was on that day? A review of Howard University commencement programs provided the answer; the original nine founders had all graduated by 1909.

In the spirit of creating a visual representation of all 16 founders together, it's essential to highlight the extraordinary feat these women accomplished.  Black college women in the early 1900s were the offspring of formerly enslaved people and/or those navigating the challenges of the post-Reconstruction and early Jim Crow era.   In 1908, a mere handful—less than 1,000—African Americans were enrolled in college. The context becomes even more striking when considering that only 25 women earned bachelor of arts degrees from Howard University between 1908 and 1911. These circumstances underscore the pioneering nature of this group of young women, emphasizing their courage and determination.

The quest for an image encompassing all 16 founders arose from a desire to have a visual testament to the essence of their spirit and the profound contribution they made to black collegiate life. 

How did I proceed?  The internet of course.  I started with the 1910 photograph, then I checked Howard University graduation records, and then I began looking for HU graduation photographs.  I found this photograph of the class of 1909 containing both Ethel Hedgemon Lyle and Lavinia Norman.  

I was able to find several photographs of Lucy Diggs Slowe due to her many accomplishments.  

There was a challenge with finding photographic representation of Beulah Burke, Lillie Burke, Margaret Flagg Holmes, and Marie Woolfolk Taylor as younger women.  I had to use available photographs of the founders when they were older women and the paintings created by the sorority to get the general shape of their faces along with period based photographs to get an idea of fashions from the time period. 

Gathering reference images took at least three weeks of researching, selecting colors, and finally drawing the image.  



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Thanks for sharing.

Jackie Irving

Beautiful and thought provoking

Alane GordonBray

Soror, I LOVE this blog. Thank you for sharing a slice of your design process.

Bethann West James

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