James Conway Farley was born to slave parents in Prince Edward County, Virginia on August 10, 1854. After his father's death in 1861, he and his mother moved to Richmond where she found work as a storeroom keeper at the Columbia Hotel. By day, he helped his mother by making candles and by night, one of the hotel cooks taught him how to read and write. He managed to receive three years of public school education before apprenticing as a baker and candle maker. Frustrated with the long hours and low pay as a baker, 18-year-old J. C. Farley entered into a photographic apprenticeship with Charles R. Rees and Company. He learned quickly, and soon became a photographer at the successful G. W. Davis Photographic Gallery located at 827 Broad Street in Richmond. Mr. Davis was so impressed with his young employee that he promoted him to operator and allowed him the freedom to complete his own chemical processes. The firm's four other operators were purportedly resentful of his preferential treatment and demanded his immediate termination. However, because Mr. Farley was the gallery's lone black employee, it is believed that racism was at the root of the internal discord. Mr. Farley offered his resignation, but Mr. Davis did not want to lose his most talented employee, and so he fired the fired the white operators instead.
With his position as chief operator now secure, Mr. Farley married Rebecca P. Robinson in 1876. The family would expand to include seven daughters, and the family worshiped at the First Baptist Church, where Mr. Farley served as deacon, a responsibility he embraced with the same fervor he expressed in his photography. By 1879, the Davis Gallery was one of the most commercially successful studios in the American South, largely due to Mr. Farley's technical prowess and award-winning photography. He won first prize at Richmond's Colored Industrial Fair in 1884, and received critical acclaim for his exhibits at the World Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans the following year.
Finally, in August 1895, Mr. Farley ventured out on his own, entering into a partnership with George O. Brown, to open the upscale Jefferson Art Gallery (also known as the Jefferson Fine Arts Gallery) at 523 East Broad Street. By 1899, the gallery was a solo operation, and boasted both black and white clientele. Mr. Farley is believed to be the first successful African-American photographer and business entrepreneur. J. C. Farley died in 1910, and his few remaining portraits are on display at Richmond's Valentine Museum, located at 1015 East Clay Street.
1978 Baltimore Afro-American, No. LXXVI (Baltimore: Afro-American Co.), p. 18.
2006 Encyclopedia of African American Business, Vol. I (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press), pp. 287-288.
1902 Evidences of Progress among Colored People by G. F. Richings (Philadelphia: George S. Ferguson Co.), p. 495.
2007 Farley, James Conway (1854- 1910?) (URL: http://www.blackpast.org/aah/farley-james-conway-1854-1910).
1887 Men of Mark by William J. Simmons (Cleveland: Geo. M. Rewell & Co.), pp. 801-804.
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