Layers of Louis

Layers of Louis

This digital resource was developed by Museum Leaders in Training (M.LiT) program participants to complement VMFA’s exhibition Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop. The timeline focuses on events during and surrounding Louis Draper’s life. Louis Draper, a founding member of the Kamoinge Workshop, was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia.

Modern and Contemporary Art
America, Virginia
Subject Area:
African American, History and Social Science, Visual Arts
Activity Type:
Art in Depth, Special Exhibition

A project by VMFA’s Museum Leaders in Training 2019-2020

For this project, M.LiT participants explored how Draper’s social, geographic, and political environment shaped his identity as a person and an artist. They researched four “layers” of influences and experiences:

  • Draper’s childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood
  • Draper’s later life and the formation of the Kamoinge group
  • Key Richmond events and locations  
  • The national context, including significant moments in the Civil Rights Movement

Their research is organized thematically below. A chronological timeline is available for download to accompany this information.

This program is generously sponsored by Wells Fargo. 

Educational programs related to Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop are generously supported by the Community Foundation for a greater Richmond.

Section 1: Draper’s childhood, adolescence, & young adulthood

My Father, Hansel H. Draper, with me (Louis H. Draper and my sister, Nell Olivia Draper (Winston), About 1938-1939
Louis H. Draper Artist Archives (VA04.03.3.111.P5). Acquired from the Louis H. Draper Preservation Trust with the Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Endowment Fund. VMFA Archives, Richmond, Virginia.

By Kathia Dawson, Jane Ruggles, & Anna Wershbale



September 24, 1935: Louis Draper is born

Louis Draper was born into the loving arms of Hansel and Dorothy Draper in Henrico County. His tiny fingers, just now gripping his mother’s thumb for the first time, would go on to play baseball, write screenplays, and most notably, capture the often overlooked African American communities of Harlem with his camera.


1935–1953: Parents & Homelife

During Louis’ early life, he was surrounded by a close-knit family and community. His dad, a World War II Veteran, was a mail carrier and an amateur photographer while his mom was an active mother and member of the community. From the cozy indoors to the outside world, their parents would join Louis and Nell on their adventures: playing board games, watchings films through a window, and playing baseball outside with them and the neighborhood kids. Local hubs like the barbershops, aunts’ houses, and the Robinson Theater on Q street, helped hold this community together. The influence Richmond had on Louis inspired him to look at the outside world in a different manner. Even after Louis moved to New York, he visited often.


1943: Hansel Draper, Louis’ father, is drafted into the Army and was stationed in New Orleans.


1944: Louis is enrolled at Van de Vyver Institute

The school designated for African Americans, which was a short commute from Lou and Nell’s home, was barely heated. A quote from Nell follows: “The boys would have to go out during the day to collect kindling to start fires in the wood-burning stove, and Lou kept getting colds.” There were no other options closeby due to segregation. In 1944, Louis Draper’s mother decided to enroll him and his sister at the Van de Vyver Institute which would provide more resources for her children’s success but required a much longer commute.

Hansel Draper. Photograph courtesy of Nell Draper-Winston.

Louis Draper’s graduation portrait. Photograph courtesy of Nell Draper-Winston.

1953: Louis Draper graduates from Virginia Randolph High School.


1953: Louis Draper Enrolls at Virginia State College which is now Virginia State University. Draper is gifted a camera from his father and joins the the student newspaper, The Statesmen.


1955: The Family of Man

The Family of Man, a book published in 1955, fell into the hands of Louis Draper and would change the trajectory of his life. The Family of Man was an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that included works from many different photographers from around the world, curated and published in a catalogue by Edward Steichen. It served as a photo essay celebrating the universal aspects of the human experience. It was described as a “declaration of global solidarity in the decade following World War II.”


1956: Photographer for the Virginia Statesman

It was after his experience with The Family of Man that Louis Draper began photographing for the Virginia Statesman. The Statesman, a newspaper published by Virginia State University starting in the 1930s, chronicled most things from student life to current politics. It created a community of outreach and student involvement within the university, in which Draper found a role. It was the beginning of a lifetime love of photography for Draper. 


1957: RVA to NYC

After finding inspiration in the Family of Man exhibition book, and diving fully into his budding passion for photography in the Virginia Statesmen, Draper realized that in order to grow as an artist he was going to have to leave home. The late 50s and early 60s New York City art scene exemplified the rapidly changing world and progressive mindset that “next generation” brought with it. It was the beginning of an era as modern titans such as Jasper Johns and Jackson Pollock achieved celebrity status, while Andy Warhol’s “pop” style began to gain traction. Among the art house kings, Louis Draper, fresh out of college and greatly inspired by the likes of Eugene Smith and Philippe Halsman, was looking to find his place in this mecca of creation, and with camera in hand, set off into the great unknown.



The Virginia Statesmen, November 10, 1955. Louis H. Draper Artist Archives (VA04.01.1.207). Acquired from the Louis H. Draper Preservation Trust with the Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Endowment Fund. VMFA Archives, Richmond, Virginia.

Section 2: Draper’s later life & the formation of the Kamoinge workshop

“Photo Techniques,” Photography Class Notes, New York University Institute of Film and Television, 1968. Louis H. Draper Artist Archives (VA04.01.1.045). Acquired from the Louis H. Draper Preservation Trust with the Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Endowment Fund. VMFA Archives, Richmond, Virginia.

By Zora Burrell, Felix Hedberg, Rahul Palani, Malena Lo Prete, & Isaiah Thomas



1958: New York School of Photography

Draper briefly enrolls at the New York School of Photography but ultimately decides to quit.


1958: “Photographic Aesthetics”

Draper enrolls in “Photography Aesthetics,” a workshop taught by Harold Feinstein.

1963: The formation of the Kamoinge Workshop 

The Kamoinge Workshop formed through the merger of two existing groups. The founding of the Kamoinge Workshop was one small event that would lead to many numerous and impactful actions and events that would change photography forever. The release of their first and second portfolio in 1964 and 1965, along with beautifully showcasing artful photographs in gallery spaces throughout New York, made more Black photographers visible. The deeply personal photos displayed in their portfolio brought new voices to the world of photography. 

Group Portrait, 1965-66, Ray Francis, Beuford Smith Archives (SC32.01.0.003). Gift of the Beuford Smith Collection. VMFA Archives, Richmond, Virginia.

The Black Photographers Annual, 1973 Volume 1 / with a forward by Toni Morrison and an introduction by Clayton Riley. Rare Books Collection, Gift of Beuford Smith, VMFA Margaret R. and Robert M. Freeman Library, Richmond, Virginia.


1966: Draper’s Mentorship

The Bed-Stuy Youth in Action Neighborhood Youth Corp hires Draper as an instructor to teach photography to high school students. This marks a point at which teaching and mentorship become a calling for Draper, likely in response to his own commitment to self-expression through photography. 


1973: The Black Photographers Annual

In 1973, Beuford Smith founded The Black Photographers Annual which published photographs from all kinds of subjects and from all types of Black artists, including many of whom were Kamoinge members. 

1980 – Fourth & Final volume of the Black Photographers Annual is published

The fourth and final volume of the Black Photographers Annual is published. A member of the collective recalled the beginning of this publication as one of the most significant concrete breakthroughs Kamoinge experienced.

See the Full Volume

Kamoinge 1994. Louis H. Draper Artist Archives (VA04.01.2.039). Acquired from the Louis H. Draper Preservation Trust with the Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Endowment Fund. VMFA Archives, Richmond, Virginia.


1990: Louis Draper’s Presidency

Louis Draper’s seven-year term as president of Kamoinge begins. Under his leadership, the Kamoinge group drops “workshop” from their name,  comes together again to schedule regular meetings, and begins to accept new members. The group held its second exhibition at Countee Cullen Library.


1994: Kamoinge’s Reemergence

In 1994, the Kamoinge group expands their horizons by accepting new members, including more women, and meeting more regularly. 

Present Day Kamoinge Workshop

A recent exhibit, Black Women: Power and Grace, by the National Arts Club highlighted the legacy of the Kamoinge group and their contemporary talents. As of 2019, there were approximately thirty active members. 


2002: Louis Draper passes aways in Trenton, NJ. 


2015: VMFA acquires the Louis H. Draper Archive and Papers. 

Lou Draper, Toni Parks, Steve Martin, Tony Barboza’s Studio, 1990s, Beuford Smith. Beuford Smith Archives (SC32.01.0.023). Gift of the Beuford Smith Collection. VMFA Archives, Richmond, Virginia.

Video Still of Nell Draper-Winston. Photograph: Sharad Patel, VMFA

November 14, 2019: The Museum Leaders in Training students interview Nell Draper-Winston at the VMFA. 


February 1, 2020: Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop at VMFA

The exhibition, Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop, opens at VMFA for a period of five months before traveling to two additional venues. 



Section 3: Key Richmond events & locations

Louis H. Draper Artist Archives (VA04.03.3.107.S2). Acquired from the Louis H. Draper Preservation Trust with the Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Endowment Fund. VMFA Archives, Richmond, Virginia.

By Sam Beirne, Campbell Heinberg, Grace Hessberg, Kendall Reed, & Olivia Vargo



1929: Draper’s Family Barber Shop Opens 

Draper’s cousin, Bill Alexander, owned the barber shop on Q and 29th street which served as a social hub for the African American community in the East End. The barber shop symbolizes how integrated Draper’s family was in the East End community.



1929: Virginia Randolph Rebuilt

The Virginia Randolph Training School had opened in 1915 and was the first African American high school in Henrico Country. Students from all over the country attended the school, taught by Virginia Estelle Randolph who housed students in her Richmond home. In 1929, The Virginia Randolph Training School burned down and was replaced with Virginia Randolph High School, which Louis would one-day attend. 

Present Day Virginia Randolph

Virginia Randoph is now called The Academy at Virginia Randolph in Henrico County, and as a school, intends to improve students’ behavior and academics so they can return to their districted school. 

1944: Seven Pines Bus Stop 

At the age of nine, Draper led his sister along with other neighborhood kids who attended Van de Vyver Institute to the Seven Pines bus stop in order to get to school. The bus traveled on Nine Mile Road from Henrico County into Richmond City, almost an hour long bus ride. The kids got off at 8th and Broad, which at the time was physical divide between African American and Caucasian residents in Richmond. After getting off the bus, they walked for another ten extra blocks to 1st and Duval where the school was located.

The Battle of Seven Pines

The bus stop’s name originated from the Civil War Battle of Seven Pines, fought six miles east of Richmond,  which took place between May 31, 1862 and June 1, 1862. 


1944: Van De Vyver Institute

This catholic private school, where Louis and Nell were enrolled in 1944, was founded in 1885 as the first Catholic school for African Americans in the South. Schools like Van De Vyver were a huge step for African American children trying to reach their dreams. The Van de Vyver Institute was the largest private school for African Americans in Richmond during its prime, but the institute closed in 1969.

1956 to 1960: Massive Resistance

Following the Brown v. Board of Education court decision, the Massive Resistance movement formed to avoid desegregation in Virginia. This effort was first proposed by Senator Harry F. Byrd. Governor Thomas B. Stanley passed legislation to allow the governor to close schools in the process of desegregation within Virginia. Many schools are closed until federal courts intervene, forcing the peaceful integration of African American students, starting in Charlottesville. Massive Resistance ends, but it fostered a strong opposition to integration within Virginia, making the road towards Civil Rights difficult. 

February 22nd, 1960: Thalhimers Arrest Sit-in

Thirty-four Virginia Union University students were arrested for refusing to leave the segregated seating area of Thalhimers. This was a department store, that originated in Richmond and spread to several states on the East Coast. The students arrested were later put on trial and fined for trespassing. This event led to several boycotts of Richmond businesses and sparked protests throughout the area. Nell Draper-Winston was a part of organizing and participating in these protests. These events led to all businesses along Broad Street being desegregated.

Thalhimers in 1955 on Downtown Broad Street. Photograph: Richmond Times Dispatch.

Students protesting bus plan. Photograph: Valentine Richmond History Center.

1970: Bradley v. Richmond School Board 

This was a court case in which the Honorable Robert Merhige Jr. implemented a busing program throughout the city of Richmond to reduce segregation of schools. He intended to mix Caucasian and African American populations in the city and suburbs by 1972 in response to the fleeing of white families to private schools and suburbs, referred to as “white flight”.  There was excessive backlash from parents and the general public to this program. This segregation was escalating more so from the busing policy than anything else, which is known as “de facto” segregation, occurring despite the laws in place that are meant to prevent this issue.



Section 4: National Context

By Sydney Brewer, Kennedy Keith, Jin Sun Lee, Audrey Price, Simone Smith, & Isabella Thomas



19291939: The Great Depression 

The Great Depression was the worst economic decline in modern history which greatly affected the African American community

1955: Brown v. Board of Education

The Brown v. Board of Education case took place in Topeka, Kansas around the time Louis Draper was twenty years old. This suit declared that the Board of Education was denying African American students the right to attend all white public schools. Instead, African American students were attending schools that were farther away and had battered, second hand school supplies. The court agreed to make segregation illegal, and began the integration of African Americans into previously all white schools.

Nettie Hunt and her daughter sit on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court the day after the verdict was announced. Photograph: Bettman/Corbis.

Civil Rights Act of 1957

The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was passed to protect voter rights. Americans could not discriminate against each other or deny anyone the right to vote at a certain poll based on the color of their skin or any other basis. This soon became federal law. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 prohibited discrimination of anyone based on color, race, gender, religious afiliation, or nationality.

December 12th, 1963: Kenya’s Independence 

Kenya became fully independent from Great Britain. The Kikuyu people of Kenya spoke a language called “Gikuyu”. From this language, Draper and several Kamoinge members established a name for their group of photographers in New York. The word “kamoinge” was chosen to be the official group name in 1963. Kamoinge means “a group of people acting and working together” in Gikuyu.

The Year of 1963 in Civil Rights

The Kamoinge Workshop was founded in the year 1963, which was also one of the biggest years for the Civil Rights Movement.


Birmingham, Alabama

Martin Luther King Jr., alongside the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, organized series of protests in response to the segregation in public spaces and discrimination in the workplace that was occuring in Birmingham. These protests challenged the current ideologies of the South during the 1960s. 


April 16th 

Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” after he was arrested for protesting without a permit on April 12th. In his letter, he responded to white Alabama ministers who had encouraged him to end the protests and instead patiently wait for the judicial system to desegregate the south. He explained how he believed it was his duty that was ordained by God to bring freedom to the nation, specifically Birmingham.


June 12th   

Medgar Evers was the first field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He was murdered by white supremacist Bryon De La Beckwith. The NAACP was founded on February 12th of 1909 in New York; the same place where Kamoinge was formed.

August 28th  

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was held in Washington D.C. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.


September 15th

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed which resulted in four young casualties.

November 22nd 

President Kennedy was assassinated. Kennedy had advocated for and accomplished many victories for the civil rights movement.  

Civil Rights Act of 1964

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, although similar to the act passed in 1957, was different because it played a key role in desegregating schools and offices across the country. Louis Draper was in his late twenties while all of this was happening.


February 21, 1965: Malcolm X is Assassinated

Malcolm X was shot and killed at a rally in New York City. Malcolm X was an important leader in the Civil Right Movement in the United States. He was a Muslim minister. He was beloved by fellow activists and their community, and played a large role, alongside Martin Luther King Jr., in the Civil Rights Movement.  

Voter Rally, Washington DC, 1984 at Howard University. Photograph: Chuck Patch

1984: Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign

Jesse Jackson, a popular civil rights leader who encouraged others to be more politically active, ran for president in 1984. He placed third in primaries during the election. 

1992: Los Angeles Riots

A five-day riot began due to the acquittal of four white policemen who were directly involved with the severe beating of Rodney King, an African American motorist. At the end of the riot, more than fifty people were found dead and approximately 2,300 injured were discovered. Due to all the wreckage, death, and damage the riot caused, it became one of the most catastrophic civil disruptions. Furthermore, this event is an accurate example of police brutality, which is still a controversial topic to this day. 

Aerial view of marchers on the National Mall during the Million Man March, looking toward the Washington Monument, Oct. 16, 1995. Photograph: The Library of Congress



1995: Million Man March

Hundreds of thousands of Black men gather in Washington, D.C., for the Million Man March, one of the largest demonstrations of its kind in the Capital’s history. The march aimed to instill Black men with a sense of solidarity in the face of oppression and provide the opportunity for spiritual renewal. Two years later, a Million Woman March was organized in Philadelphia.

2008: President Barack Obama’s Election

President Barack Obama is elected as the 44th President of the United States. For the first time in the history of the United States, an African American man is elected president. This event signified a landmark for African American achievement and progress.  


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