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)


Michael Leddy said...

That object does look like a bedpost, but what would it be doing in the center of the photograph?

I kept thinking of Ralph Ellison’s title while reading: Going to the Territory.

Chris said...

That's why I suspect it wasn't taken in a studio. Unless there's some other explanation.

Michael Leddy said...

I was wondering more literally — how would it be the center of the photo? In other words, how would people arrange themselves so close to a bedpost to make this photo? It’s puzzling.