Sunday, July 26, 2015

Americans (III)


This photograph may be the pivot of the collection. The image itself has some unusual features (which I'll note shortly), but its greatest interest may lie in the fact that it exists at all, and in how it relates to the other photos.

The photo shows two unidentified men and an unidentified woman, possibly siblings or a married couple and a brother-in-law. Someone — probably a child — has scrawled a line between the two men and a sort of spiral on the woman's mouth. The mount bears the inscription — apparently in pencil — "Wallace Sallisaw, OK." This would be the photographer L. N. Wallace, who was active in Sallisaw, Oklahoma at least by 1910 and as late as 1917, and who sometimes signed his work in that manner. (During that period he reportedly photographed an adolescent Charles Arthur Floyd, later to become notorious as Pretty Boy Floyd.) The photo above is probably no earlier than 1907, because Sallisaw was not in "Oklahoma" before then.

Wallace was a professional photographer, but I'm not clear whether this photograph was taken in a studio. What makes me wonder is the curious pose: the woman seems to be supported by the two men, and the object in the center foreground may be a bedpost; was she perhaps lying in bed, too ill to sit up? There is a seriousness and tenderness to the image that suggests this might have been the case, but maybe there's another explanation. Be that as it may, we can now start to assemble a series of pieces of evidence:
1) The family album or family collection from which all of the photographs in this series of posts were drawn came from a dealer who himself purchased it in Oklahoma.

2) The oldest of the photos that can be assigned a location came from Franklin County or elsewhere in Tennessee and date to c.1880.

3) The latest photos that can be assigned a location (these will be examined in future posts) come from Oklahoma and Louisiana.

4) The photograph at the top of the page, which is from Sallisaw, Oklahoma, is probably later than the Tennessee images, but it is earlier than the latest Oklahoma photo or photos in the group.
What the collection appears to document, then, is a movement after c. 1880 of some members or associates of the family network out of Tennessee and into what is now Oklahoma, and possibly into Louisiana. The evidence of this migration seems stronger in the case of Oklahoma because of the fact that there would have been relatively few African-Americans (there were some) in what was then known as Indian Territory c.1880; Louisiana, on the other hand, had long had a large African-American population. It's not impossible that the subjects of the Sallisaw photograph were descendants of African-Americans enslaved by the Cherokee, or descendants of other African-Americans who arrived in the area at an early date, but it is probably statistically more likely that they were part of the larger migration of African-Americans that took place in the 1880s and 1890s with the opening of Indian lands to settlement by non-Indians.

So the pivotal questions are 1) can the photographs be said to document a migration of one or more family members from Tennessee or another former slave state to Oklahoma?; and 2) how would this fit in with the historical context? The answer to the first question, given the fragmentary nature of the evidence, can only be tentative. Even if the photos could be definitively assigned to a single family network, there are too many other possible narratives that could serve to fit them together. We can't prove that any of the subjects of the Tennessee photos, or any of their descendants or relations, ever migrated west; we can't make any conclusions about the connection of the subjects of the Louisiana and Missouri photos to the other subjects; and we can't prove that the Oklahoma subjects came from Tennessee. The most we can do is say that a migration from Tennessee to Oklahoma is a possible narrative connecting the evidence. But in answer to the second question, we can say that such a migration, if true, would be an emblematic narrative in line with documented migrations that took place within the time frame represented by the photos.

So the remaining questions I'll pose in this post are these: why would African-Americans have migrated in significant numbers to what was then the frontier of US settlement in the West, and did they in fact undertake such migrations? Fortunately, the answers to both of these questions are firmly historically established. Following the Compromise of 1877 and the collapse of Reconstruction, political, economic, and social conditions for African-Americans in the former slave-holding states became extremely precarious, and by the time of the Kansas Fever Exodus of 1879 a classic push-pull migration dynamic had developed to which thousands of African-Americans responded. The "push" was the reinforcement of white supremacy throughout the South, accompanied by violence and intimidation against African-Americans who sought to hold on to their rights; and the "pull" was the prospect (in some cases illusory) of independence and prosperity in newly opened lands that had no tradition of slavery. The movement of African-Americans into Kansas was soon followed by migration into Oklahoma. Over the next decades the thousands of settlers from the east would form a number of black-majority towns in Oklahoma Territory (the state of Oklahoma from 1907), and would establish the prosperous Greenwood business district of Tulsa which was later destroyed by the white riot of 1921.

Sallisaw, the seat of Sequoyah County, was not a "black town," although it may have been one of the few towns in the region to offer a photographic studio. The three subjects in the L. N. Wallace photo may have been residents, or just people passing through. Were they part of the post-Reconstruction exodus from the Southeast? We don't know; all we know is that they could have been, and that such a migration would have been common at the time.

More to come.

Further reading:

Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution (New York: Harper & Row, 1988)
Nell Irwin Painter, Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1977)

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Americans (II)


The portion of the apparent family collection that I was able to obtain consists of thirteen photographs in a variety of formats, dating from c.1880 to at least 1933. Those that bear indication of their source come from four states: Tennessee, Missouri, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. Some were taken by studio photographers (all were apparently white) whose activities have been documented elsewhere; others are casual snapshots, probably taken by amateurs. A handful of the subjects are named: Vivian Garrett, Guss Crader from Jennings, Louisiana, Laurence (no last name). I've examined the auction listings of the other items that I wasn't able to obtain, but there isn't much more information to be gleaned there.

The images in this post include some of the earliest photographs from the group. All are studio photographs, and three come from Franklin County in the south-central portion of the state of Tennessee. The badly faded but haunting portrait at the top of this page, which is in the carte de visite format, was taken by Rufus B. Williams of Winchester, Tennessee. The reverse of the mount is shown below.

Williams, who was born in 1851, was in business by 1883 and remained active as a photographer for some years thereafter; he would go on to serve several terms in the Tennessee state legislature. The sitter's eyes have been marked with tiny pinpricks, perhaps to make them stand out.

The next photograph was taken by C. S. (Charles Stewart) Judd (1844-1892), a member of a family that included several other professional photographers.

The image, which is only 1.5 x 2.25 inches excluding the mount, is from the studio in Sewanee that Judd established in 1879; at various times he also operated in Columbia, Pulaski, and Monteagle. The same photographer was also responsible for two other images from this collection that are not in my possession; one, very similar to this one, depicts a young man whose last name may have been Miller; the other was taken in Judd's Columbia studio.

The next two photographs are by unidentified photographers and depict unidentified subjects. The first, of a standing woman with her hand on the shoulder of an older woman, is quite beautiful; having the two women stare in entirely different directions may have been a conventional studio pose, but it is deeply moving nonetheless. The water-damaged one that follows it, of a woman and child, is more awkward and uncomfortable.

At first glance the studio where the cabinet card below was taken is unidentified, but one corner of the image has begun to peel back from the mount, exposing the name "Schleier," and in another corner the word "Nashville" is legible through the thin photographic paper.

This would almost certainly be Theodore M. Schleier, a well-documented photographer who operated studios in New Orleans, Nashville, and Knoxville at various times between the 1850s and 1890, before serving as consul to the Netherlands under the administration of Benjamin Harrison. Schleier, who had Republican ties, was known for his portraits of Union soldiers. I'm not sure why the photo was mounted so as to hide the name of the studio; perhaps it was simply a mistake. The subject's mustache has been darkened by hand.

The last picture on this page, shown below, was taken at the Byarlay Studio in St. Joseph, Missouri. Byarlay, who was also an agriculturalist, was active as a photographer over a long period stretching roughly from 1880 to 1920, after which his establishment was renamed Bloomer Byarlay Studio. The photograph is almost certainly twentieth-century; the mount is similar to that accompanying the graduation portrait of a young man that will appear in a later post. The woman holds a relaxed, conventional pose; both she and the photographer have done this before.

One thing that should be noted about all of these photos is that they exist at all because the sitters voluntarily chose to be photographed. They aren't "documentary" or "colorful" images taken for the amusement or edification of white viewers. As far as I can determine, the identifiable photographers — Williams, Judd, Schleier, and Byarlay — were white, but subjects and photographers alike apparently felt comfortable in engaging in a commercial transaction centered around one of the ubiquitous rituals of late-19th-century bourgeois life: having one's photograph taken. Doing so would not have involved any great expense (some of the cruder and smaller images would have been very inexpensive), but it required a level of participation in urban or town life. They are, that is, portraits of citizens, in a social if not political sense. The photograph in the next post, however, may give a hint at the extent to which that citizenship was constrained.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Americans (I)

These photographs represent what are apparently fragments of a single African-American family album or family collection that was recently broken up and sold at auction. The photographs, which date from c. 1880 to at least 1933, offer only a few clues to the sitters' identities and histories, but if they do represent the members of a single, much-extended family (which is not quite certain), then through them we can trace a rough network of family connections and spanning at least four states and roughly fifty years of American history.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Darryl Pinckney wrote "In the US, white people are able to conceive of black people who are better than they are or worse than they are, superior or inferior, but they seem to have a hard time imagining black people who are just like them." The most striking thing about most of the photographs presented here, and in the posts that will come, the thing that shouldn't be striking at all, is how ordinary they are. What they reflect is the bedrock of experience: ties of kinship and friendship, rites of passage, memory across generations — the very things, that is, whose existence among black people has often been denied or downplayed. In their fragmentary way, these images remind us that, whatever our histories or notions of identity may be, most of us want basically the same things and will vigorously pursue them — if the doors aren't shut in our faces.

Future posts will examine these and additional photographs from the collection in greater detail.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

De Thibaults

I won't be reading this new translation of Roger Martin du Gard's multi-volume novel Les Thibaults for the very good reason that I speak no Dutch, but they look like handsome editions and I'm glad there's still a market somewhere for this kind of writing. The translator is Anneke Alderlieste. They're not cheap: € 49.99 per volume. The publisher is Meulenhoff.