CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- Inside the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia, there's a new exhibition. This collection comes from more than 600 portraits of African American citizens of Charlottesville, Albemarle, and Nelson Counties, taken during the height of the Jim Crow era.

"They're allowing us to see a different central Virginia, to tell a different story about central Virginia," said Professor John Edwin Mason, Chief Exhibition Curator of the Holsinger Portrait Project.

It's called "Visions of Progress: Portraits of Dignity, Style, and Racial Uplift." It shows photos taken by photographers at the Holsinger Studio from the 1890s to 1920s.

During that time, there were state laws enforcing racial segregation in Virginia. The Ku Klux Klan had local chapters. But Professor Mason, a History Professor at UVA and Co-Director of the Holsinger Portrait Project, says you don't see that when looking at the photos.

"They were not defined by their oppression, they were not defined by Jim Crow, they were not defined by their occupations as cooks or as housekeepers, or as janitors, they saw themselves living full, rich lives, and that's what they wanted to show in these portraits," he said.

This exhibition includes around 100 portraits and the stories of the people in them.

"Once you have a name, you can start doing research," Mason said. "We're connecting people's personal story to all kinds of local, national, and international history."

This work is done with the help of student research assistants like Mimi Reynolds.

"This history is very close to Charlottesville and where I live, I feel like a lot of history is happening somewhere else, or it seems like we're not very in touch with it, so its cool that I'm living in a place where I'm learning it," Reynolds said.

The history is so close by that Charlottesville natives are helping to identify the people in these portraits and tell a more complete story.

Edwina St. Rose has worked with the Daughters of Zion Cemetery, Charlottesville's historic African American cemetery, doing genealogy work for more than five years. St. Rose is extending her work to help the Holsinger Portrait Project.

"It's a welcome addition to my life to be able to help with another project that's looking at the African American history in the Charlottesville area," she said.

With the combination of native Charlottesvillians, and documents like birth and death records, census records, military records, marriage certificates, and newspaper clippings, these people are given more than just a portrait, but a story.

"When you look at the dignity people had, when you look at their poise and their self possession, and when you look at sometimes their panache and their style and their fashionability, they're telling us something about themselves, really powerfully, its silent, but we can see it, but we can also learn to listen to these photographs too because they're sending us a message from the past," Professor Mason said.

Some of these stories have ties to the present day and people still here in Charlottesville.

If you see someone you recognize in any of these portraits, reach out to the Holsinger Portrait Project at [email protected].