Photo Album Chronicles Life in African American Community

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     Graduation 1921 - West Chester State Normal School

Originally posted May 17, 2013

I love puzzles to solve. Some of the donations received recently in the photo archives have mysterious aspects that invite detective-like research. These curious new accessions will become the new theme for this blog.

Paul Preston Davis recently donated to CCHS some wonderful 19th century photograph albums and fascinating cartes de visite by Chester County photographers. Such items promise the excitement for adding a new Chester County photographer to the growing list. But he brought another album that was even more intriguing.

It appeared to be an ordinary photo album of the 1970s with plastic sleeves to house the photographs.  It had probably been purchased in a 5 and 10 store of the day. Opening the album revealed dog-eared black and white photographs; treasures that could have traveled in wallets throughout the years spanning the period from 1908 - 1933. They showed a young African American woman graduating in 1921 from West Chester Normal School (as West Chester University was formerly known), posing with friends and different beaus. The photographs were labeled… “So-and-so and me”  “the back of our house at 122 S. Darlington St.”  But nothing in the album indicated who “me” was.

I couldn’t stand it until I had figured the puzzle out!

The best clues were in the back of the album. Two tintypes of a handsome man and a young woman were labeled: My Father, My Mother. And there was a business card of a William P. Hobbs which listed four lodges of which he was a member.  Success came easily when a Chester County Directory for 1900 listed William P. Hobbs as living at 122 S. Darlington Street, the address of “our house”.  He was recorded as a barber in the directory.  This offered the promise of clippings about his business in the clippings file. 

   William P. Hobbs tintype

A page full of newspaper clippings revealed that he was a respected businessman in the community.  First he worked for John Gladman a well-known barber in West Chester. From there he started his own business, first in the Farmer’s Hotel (which was on West Market Street at that time) and then moved to the more upscale Mansion House Hotel at the corner of Church and Market Streets.

  William Hobbs Barbershop sign at the Mansion House Hotel, West Chester, PA, late 1890s.

But who was the person who created this album?  Who were Hobbs’ daughters?  Checking under the personal names in the clippings file revealed that William Hobbs and his wife Ella Cain only had one child, a daughter named Edith. The couple was married in their home at 122 S. Darlington Street in 1896 and their baby was born in 1900.

William’s career was cut short when he died suddenly of a heart attack at age 54 a few months before Edith was due to graduate West Chester State College in 1921. According to his obituary, Hobbs had come to West Chester about 30 years ago and had spent 25 of those years in his barbershop at the Mansion House Hotel. Before becoming a barber he had served in the 10th United States Calvary serving in the “Apache Indian War.” Two years after his death, his widow was finally able to receive his Army pension of $12 per month!

Now I could look at the album with the knowledge that each photo labeled” …& me” showed Edith Hobbs with some of her friends.  There are many familiar West Chester names in Edith’s circle of friends, such as Curry, Wheaton, Williams and Rustin. I started looking these up and came upon an exciting discovery. A newspaper clipping from 1911 recounted a surprise party that was given to Rachel Williams and listed all of her guests – including Edith Hobbs, Vella Rustin and Irma Wheaton, all depicted in the album. Rustin was the aunt of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin.

The photo album also showed Edith teaching in a schoolhouse in Maryland. She is shown with a number of young men. Now I was curious, which one did she marry?  Checking on the names in the clippings file revealed a marriage announcement in 1927 of Edith Hobbs and Samuel Richardson in Washington, D.C.!

You can see how each question that is answered only generates more questions! Did they have children? Did they return to Pennsylvania?

An obituary for Samuel Richardson in 1970 revealed that the couple lived in West Chester where Samuel worked at J. P. Harkness Clothing Store for 25 years before working as superintendant of maintenance at Anderson Hall, West Chester State College.  Listed as survivors were only his wife and a sister named Mary Green.  He was buried in Rolling Green Cemetery, so probably Edith is buried there too.

What did Edith do after her marriage? Did she ever teach school again?  The clippings file did not have an obituary for Edith, which required looking up the Social Security Death Index to find the date of death to check on the microfilm of our local newspapers.  Edith lived to be almost 92 years old, passing away in 1992. According to her obituary, she was employed with the Defense Department during World War II and thereafter worked as a house mother at Cheyney University. She was socially active as a charter member of the Fleur-De-Lis woman’s club in West Chester and in the Auxiliary of her husband’s American Legion Nathan Holmes Post.

Now I was curious about who the other people were depicted in the album and if they any were in the extended Hobbs and Cain families. There was no obituary for Ella Cain Hobbs, but in the marriage notice a Mr. & Mrs. Zachariah Cain were listed as guests. The obituary for Zachariah mentioned that he was married twice, but did not give the names of his children.

Something in the album bothered me. There was a caption for a photo which was absent from the album, it read “My grandfather (grandfather was crossed out) Uncle Zack”. What could this mean? Scanning through the obituaries for the Cain family, one for Henry Cain caught my eye. Here Mrs. William Hobbs was listed as a daughter!  I needed to confirm this.  The 1880 census revealed Ella as a four year old living with Henry and his wife Anna Mary in East Whiteland Township. So she was indeed his daughter and Zachariah Cain was her uncle.

CCHS’s files have some amazing documentation to tie together these families and friends shown in these well-loved photographs. This dime store photograph album provides a wonderful look at the African American community in West Chester.  Thank you Paul Preston Davis for giving this wonderful album to the community to enjoy!    Pamela Powell, Photo Archivist