The archives at the Center for Southern Folklore are practically bursting at the seams with photographs. At Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi, boxes bulge with hundreds more images. And in files in a back room on Beale Street and in a state-of-the-art storage facility in Waltham, Massachusetts, there are still more.
These photographs -- literally hundreds of thousands of them -- illustrate the history of segregation in Memphis. But more than that, they document a world that's gone mostly unseen. Beneath the apartheid facade, a bustling black society thrived -- an alternate city, completely self-sufficient, with its own doctors, lawyers, bankers, businessmen, ministers, schoolteachers, laborers, shopkeepers, musicians, restaurateurs, hoteliers, and barbers. In strangely parallel universes, white Memphians staged Cotton Carnival, read the Memphis Press-Scimitar, and cheered on the Memphis Chicks, while black Memphians celebrated the Cotton Makers' Jubilee, read the Tri-State Defender, and rooted for the Memphis Red Sox.
Although it was nearly invisible to white citizens at the time, African-American photographers like Henry A. and Robert B. Hooks, the Rev. Lonzie Odie Taylor, and Ernest C. Withers captured the daily activities of this other world, which sprang from the Jim Crow laws at the end of the 19th century.
Many of these photographs have languished in obscurity for decades, but now the art world is becoming attuned to the power of the work. Last month, "One Day Is Not Enough: Memphis Desegregation Through the Lens of Ernest Withers" opened at the Pink Palace. This month, a selection of Rev. Taylor's photographs went on display at the Brooks Museum of Art as part of "Pictures From Home: Six African-American Studio Photographers in the South, 1900-1950," a traveling exhibition that originated at the Tubman African American Museum in Macon, Georgia. And just in time for Black History Month, "Hooks Brothers Photography: 70 Years of African-American Life in Memphis" has opened at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
In 1907, when brothers Henry and Robert Hooks hung their shingle on a storefront on South Main Street, Boss Crump was about to take over the town. Although W.C. Handy was two years away from penning his "Memphis Blues," Beale Street was wide open. African Americans flocked to the east end of Beale, where millionaire Robert Church built an auditorium and extensive gardens for public use, while a few blocks away, P. Wee's Saloon was drawing roustabouts and high rollers in from the riverfront.
In that studio and its successor on Beale Street, the Hooks brothers photographed musicians, dancers, children, and soldiers. They shot graduating classes, gridiron stars, church congregations, and street scenes. And after World War II, the Hooks opened a trade school on Linden Avenue, where they trained dozens more aspiring photographers; still later, they moved to East McLemore Avenue, where they were in business until 1984.
"They were the Olan Mills of the African-American community," says Emily Weaver, university archivist at Delta State University, which acquired most of the Hooks brothers' prints, negatives, and equipment in the 1990s.
Carol Drake, manager of exhibits, archives, and education at the Stax Museum, recalls the first time she laid eyes on the collection, five years ago. "I was at Delta State for an archivist conference, and they said, 'You're from Memphis -- let's show you something.' They brought me into a room where there were boxes and boxes containing thousands of Hooks brothers photos," she says.
Surveying the archives, which include some 30,000 prints, 2,000 glass plate negatives, 10,000 nitrate negatives, as well as cameras, lenses, lighting equipment, and props, Drake knew that she had to help spread the word about the Hooks brothers' collection.
"When I started working at Stax, a joint effort [with Delta State] seemed like a natural fit," she says. "I wanted to bring these pictures home, back to Soulsville."
"The Hooks had a conscious desire to document the world around them -- club life, church activities, schools and businesses, and every bit of it was segregated," Drake says. "Compared to white Memphis, the similarities are stunning. One of the biggest lessons to learn, which we literally see in black-and-white, is that maybe we're not so different after all."
To date, only 10 percent of the Hooks brothers' collection has been processed to the point that researchers can access it, says Weaver. Most of the subjects portrayed are unidentified. "We do have note cards of everyone who had a photo taken, and their address, but the notes don't correlate with the images in the collection," she says. "The more visible the collection becomes, the more [subjects] we'll be able to name."
For now, Weaver has stabilized the collection in pH-balanced boxes that divide color and black-and-white prints. "We assessed the collection as far as what needs immediate attention," she reports, "and we have tried to isolate more fragile items, especially negatives. Financially, cold storage is not a current option, but the photos are kept in their own quarantined storage area, and we feel that we've at least stopped any deterioration."
In the late 1920s, while the Hooks brothers were making a name for themselves downtown, Lonzie Taylor decided to pick up a new hobby. A self-taught photographer, the Baptist preacher, candymaker, and appliance repairman began documenting the Springdale community of North Memphis. Within a decade, Taylor, the pastor at Olivet Baptist Church, had a home studio and darkroom, where he shot and developed portraits using an Eastman Kodak view camera. An active photographer for 35 years, Taylor also documented community events using a 16-mm movie camera and record-cutting equipment.
When Taylor died, in 1977, his life's work was nearly lost, until a neighbor, Lula Adams, alerted the Center for Southern Folklore to the vast multimedia collection -- some 30,000 feet of film, 100 hand-cut 78-rpm discs, 5,000 negatives, and 500 prints -- which sat decaying in his attic darkroom.
"Lula told me that Rev. Taylor's widow had all these photographs and that she was anxious to figure out what to do with them," says Judy Peiser, the center's executive director. "Luckily, he was neat, and he'd kept things fairly in order. We acquired the collection in 1977 and immediately began conducting interviews to learn more about where he was from and why he did what he did.
"The art is great. I think Taylor has a good eye," Peiser continues, "but what's really important is his documentation of the community. Each of the people he photographed had a story to tell -- and you can see in their eyes that he was able to communicate with them."
Ellen Fleurov, president of Crossroads Traveling Exhibitions and the curator of "Pictures From Home," which includes dozens of images from the Center for Southern Folklore's archives, says Taylor's pictures are not just significant on a local or regional level. "They're a national treasure," she says.
Michael Taft, head of the American Folklife Center's Archive of Folk Culture, a division of the Library of Congress, visited the Center for Southern Folklore last year to assess the value of Taylor's work. "I rate it as an incredibly important collection, a slice of African-American life that we generally don't see," Taft says, "which is the urban South, done from the insider's point of view.
"Taylor's photographs give us a more three-dimensional view of black life," he adds. "There's an immediacy in these images and something intimate about them as well. Visually, they inspire a very emotional, almost visceral response that you don't get from other historical documents."
Aside from their inclusion in the "Pictures From Home" show, most of Taylor's photographs have been hidden from the public eye for the past three decades. "Ironically," Fleurov notes, "Taylor is the least well-known photographer in this exhibition, yet his archives are probably the most complete.
"Taylor's pictures show what African Americans had -- family, tradition, religious beliefs, and ideals," she says. "His work speaks to our common humanity. It shouldn't take an outside scholar to come in and tell Memphis how important this work is."
While Peiser plans to introduce Taylor's work to a wider audience via books, accessible archives, and more traveling exhibits, right now she's got a more pressing concern -- stabilizing and digitizing the collection, then making duplicate hard drives for the Library of Congress.
"It's a five-year project," says Peiser, who's received funding from the Assisi Foundation of Memphis, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, and the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis to initiate the restoration.
"Obviously, you'd want to save this collection at any cost," Taft says. "In the age of digital preservation, you can have it in more than one place, but the most important thing is to make it accessible to the people of Memphis."
Ernest C. Withers, a commercial photographer since the end of WWII, still runs his studio, which, after decades in North and South Memphis, is now located at 333 Beale Street. Over the last 60 years, he's photographed the Memphis music scene, the civil rights movement from Emmett Till's murder to the final days of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Negro Baseball League, and countless weddings, funerals, and family celebrations.
Because he provided newsworthy photographs for black wire services, which in turn broadcast his images around the globe, Withers achieved a level of fame that Taylor and the Hooks brothers could only dream of. Although they were often published without attribution, many of his pictures -- Howlin' Wolf performing at a grocery store, James Meredith on the "March Against Fear," King resting at the Lorraine Motel, and the sanitation workers' strike -- have become an indelible part of the American psyche.
Yet for every published photograph, Withers possesses thousands more, never before seen and just as fascinating. The file cabinets in his office are overflowing with untold histories in black-and-white, and organizing them is a losing battle, because Withers continues to photograph 15 to 20 events a week. Fortunately, the original negatives that comprise the bulk of his work are safely stored at the PanOpticon Gallery in Massachusetts.
Surveying his early photographs, Withers often describes the nightclub scenes as consisting of "99 and 44-hundredths percent African-American people.
"Nothing at that time was integrated," he says. "Memphis was a separate town."
New York-based author Daniel Wolff, who has collaborated with Withers on three volumes of photographs -- Pictures Tell the Story, The Memphis Blues Again: Six Decades of Memphis Music Photographs, and Negro League Baseball: Photographs By Ernest C. Withers -- calls the images astounding.
"This is a comprehensive look at a part of the world that was kept under wraps from the majority of people in the nation," Wolff states. "But even broader than that, these are great pictures of what folks, no matter what color they might be, are doing -- making music, playing baseball, the whole range. These images show that we're all alike and that each of us is incredibly different. Ernest has a great eye, and he has that ability to project a special feeling, no matter what his subject is.
"Ask [Ernest] to explain it, and he'll say that it's his job to get in the right place and take a good picture," Wolff says. "He never intended to make history or create art. He intended to make money, which gives his work a no-nonsense, down-to-earth directness."
According to curator Ellen Fleurov, until the 1980s, African-American photography was virtually ignored by scholars. She calls the black side of the segregation wall "a marginalized history that exists everywhere and nowhere. You have to search, because it's not cataloged properly.
"For the most part, these photographs essentially fall within the realm of family and community portraits, which aren't often found in museums," she explains. "Instead, they've been saved in personal scrapbooks, or, in a few instances, they've found their way into historical archives. But historically and aesthetically, these studio portraits are as important as, say, Marion Post Walcott's work for the Works Progress Administration.
"Institutional racism is a part of our nation's history, whether you like it or not," Fleurov notes, "and these images capture a period of time [rife] with tumultuous change and political strife. They address individuality and personality through self-representation, identities that were lost on the white world."
"Pictures From Home," she says, indirectly portrays the effects of segregation, illustrating how African-American photographers and clients refuted stereotypes -- "how," she claims, "they tried to counter the sense of marginalization or the sense of being invisible."
Civil rights veteran and Circuit Court judge D'Army Bailey, who often posed for the Hooks brothers and Withers, says that Memphis' black population wasn't necessarily preoccupied with rebutting any white stereotypes.
"We had our portraits made to reinforce our own stereotypes, which were positive," Bailey says. "We saw ourselves as sharp. Our shoes were shined, our pants were pressed, and we were very well presented. We had a lot of self-pride, and pictures provided an affirmation of how clean we were in our own mind. We weren't sending messages to white people. We were sending messages to each other, sharing evidence of our vision of ourselves to our friends and family and carrying those visions forward to posterity.
"Everything critical to our growth and sustenance was supplied by blacks within the black community," Bailey says, "and for us, photography provided an extension of ourselves at our best."
Withers' photos of lynching victim Emmett Till's bloated body, published in Jet magazine, were, Bailey says, "as powerful a voice as any speech Martin Luther King ever gave -- a clarion call to black America.
"The mob at Central High School in Little Rock; the burned station wagon that Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner rode in; the college students at the lunch counter in Greensboro [North Carolina]," he intones, remembering the civil rights movement's pivotal moments as a series of iconic photographs.
"The marchers being challenged in Selma. Malcolm X peering out of a window with a shotgun at his side, and later, the picture of him being wheeled out of the ballroom on a stretcher after he'd been shot. The picture of the Olympic athletes holding their fists up, and the photo of Huey Newton sitting in a straw-back chair with his tam on: All those pictures tell a story without anything else having to be said. They evoke emotion and awareness, and they speak of a time and a challenge," Bailey says.
But Bailey wonders aloud if the emphasis on such photographs might signal what he describes as "a detachment of the now from the then.
"It's like history under glass," he muses. "The disconnect bothers me. We glorify what we see in past images, in contrast to our own sense of emptiness in regard to our current existence. We need to stop looking back with pride and start looking forward with dissatisfaction."
Marina Pacini, chief curator of the Brooks Museum, has faith in Memphis' legacy of African-American images. "You can't go forward without knowing where you came from," she maintains. "The history of this city has to be understood in all its complexity."
In recent years, Pacini says, the Brooks has made it an institutional goal to add more African-American photography and art to its permanent collection. The museum also launched a concerted effort to showcase African-American work in all media, which has led to exhibitions like "The Quilts of Gee's Bend" and "Patrick Kelly: A Retrospective."
"We already owned four of Ernest Withers' images," Pacini says, "and we purchased an additional 122 photographs in 2005. It's extremely important that these materials are saved within the community, so people can visit their history without having to travel far.
"Human beings can be told about something, but they won't understand it in the same way as they will when they look at a photographic image," Pacini says. "There were plenty of newspaper articles about what had happened to people in the South, but no one fully understood until they saw the images of Emmett Till.
"You can't talk about these photographs as just art objects or historical documents -- they're inseparable," she says. "These images have a power that's extraordinary. They have the ability to move people and provoke them into action."
One Day Is Not Enough: Memphis Desegregation Through the Lens of Ernest Withers
Hooks Brothers Photography: 70 Years of African-American Life in Memphis
On display at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music through April 23rd. For more information, go to
Pictures From Home: Six African-American Studio Photographers in the South, 1900-1950
Includes 30 of Rev. L.O. Taylor's photographs, on loan from the Center for Southern Folklore. The exhibit will be at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art through April 30th. Curator Ellen Fleurov will be on hand for a reception on Thursday, February 16th. For more information, go to BrooksMuseum.org. To learn more about the Taylor Collection, visit SouthernFolklore.com.