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The Woman in a Jim Crow Photo

12 Jun

By MAURICE BERGER

When Joanne Wilson stepped out to enjoy a balmy summer afternoon with her niece in 1956, she stepped into history. The two stood in front of a movie theater in downtown Mobile, Ala., dressed in their Sunday best. But the neon sign that loomed overhead — “Colored Entrance” — cast a despairing shadow.

“I wasn’t going in,” Mrs. Wilson recalled. “I didn’t want to take my niece through the back entrance. She smelled popcorn and wanted some. All I could think was where I could go to get her popcorn.”

That moment was captured by Gordon Parks, who was working on a Life photo essay that documented everyday life among an extended African-American family in the rural South. Although it was not among the final selections published in September 1956 as “The Restraints: Open and Hidden,” the photograph of Mrs. Wilson and her niece, Shirley Diane Kirksey, is among the most compelling of the project.

We usually associate civil rights photography with dramatic scenes of historic events. But this image helps us to understand that the battle for racial equality and justice was waged not just through epic demonstrations, speeches and conflagrations, but also through the quiet actions of individuals.

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In a previous essay on Lens, Maurice Berger explored Gordon Parks’s radically prosaic approach to civil rights imagery.

More than half a century later, the Gordon Parks Foundation honored Mrs. Wilson with a gift of that color print during its celebrity-filled annual awards dinner at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Speaking in a lilting but strong voice, Mrs. Wilson recounted on Tuesday night what it was like to encounter and work with Mr. Parks — how comfortable he made her feel and her need to teach him, the Northerner, “the things we could do and the things we could not do” under the watchful eyes of segregationists.

White supremacists understood the power of the camera to expose their violent prejudices and turn the nation against them. As Mr. Parks recalled later, the risk of retaliation for participating in the Life story was great, both for the photographer and for his subjects. But neither he nor Mrs. Wilson would be intimidated.

DESCRIPTIONGordon Parks, courtesy of the Gordon Parks FoundationA black classroom in Shady Grove, Ala., 1956.

“My family saw the photo essay as an opportunity to advance the cause of civil rights,” said Michael Wilson, Mrs. Wilson’s son and the family historian. “These pictures were going to be published in a national magazine. People across the country would clearly see the problem. They could see our plight. Maybe then we could get help.”

Despite the poverty and racial enmity all around her, Mrs. Wilson endeavored to make life for her family as normal as possible. In 1956, she married Troy Wilson, a longshoreman. They had two children. After receiving her college degree, she taught American government and economics for 36 years at Mattie T. Blount High School, which served a predominantly black and low-income community in Prichard, Ala.

Like her father, Albert Thornton Sr., she believed in the power of education to uplift African-Americans and prepare them to overcome racism and segregation. Each year, she organized a bake sale to finance a trip to Atlanta for her female students and introduce them to the city’s historically black colleges.

Mrs. Wilson, who was not featured in the final photo essay, survived its publication relatively unscathed. Her sister and brother in-law, Allie Lee Causey and Willie Causey, were less fortunate. Mrs. Causey, a teacher in a ramshackle one-room schoolhouse in Shady Grove, Ala., was quoted in the piece as advocating integration as “the only way through which Negroes will receive justice.” One of the most outspoken members of the Thornton family, she helped to organize voter drives and teach community members the Bill of Rights, the recital of which from memory was a prerequisite for African-Americans to vote in many Southern states.

As Life later reported, Mrs. Causey’s candor and activism infuriated white supremacists, who taunted the couple about their participation in the photo essay. Service stations refused to sell gas to Mr. Causey, a woodcutter and farmer. He was soon accused of owing money on his truck, which was seized by alleged creditors. Without it, he was unable to work. Two weeks after the photo essay was published, Mrs. Causey was fired from her teaching job. Unable to make a living and fearing for their safety, the couple moved out of Alabama.

Mrs. Causey, who died in 2006, never taught again.

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A continuing exploration of the relationship of race to photographic portrayals of race by the professor and curator Maurice Berger.

Despite these setbacks, the family had no misgivings about appearing in the piece. “Everyone was very impressed with the article,” Mr. Wilson said. “They felt that they had made a friend. Gordon had become part of the family.” After the essay was published, Mr. Parks would periodically check in with Mrs. Wilson’s parents.

Mrs. Wilson’s only quibble with the photograph of her and her niece was that Mr. Parks did not tell her the strap of her slip had fallen. “I always wanted to look neat and nice,” she said. “I did not want to be mistaken for a servant. Dressing well made me feel first class. I wanted to set an example.”

But Mr. Parks may have had a reason for the oversight: a desire to stress the human side of an image that, in its refinement and flair, could at first be mistaken for one of his fashion photographs. In this context, Mrs. Wilson was not just challenging racism and stereotypes through meticulous self-presentation. She was also going about her daily life, like millions of women, black and white — tending to the needs of an energetic young child, but in a hostile environment.

The price she paid for meeting this responsibility, as anyone who has cared for a child knows, was the distraction that made her overlook the fallen strap. Yet, it is this poignant detail that helps us to identify with her. And it is this appeal to empathy, a central goal of Mr. Parks’s civil rights work, that helped him to challenge racism’s abiding myth: that we are fundamentally different.

The decision of the Gordon Parks Foundation to honor Mrs. Wilson challenges another misconception: that history is principally the domain of the famous and powerful. As the Life photo essay shows, history is also made through the daily, unheralded acts of ordinary people. What we see in Mr. Parks’s image is a determined and self-possessed woman, challenging stereotypes and fortifying herself against the poisonous tide of oppression that threatened to engulf her and her family.

Mrs. Wilson’s humanity was under assault, and she chose, in her own way, to fight back. Fifty-seven years later, that moment is potent proof that even the smallest gesture, seen through the right eyes, can change the world.

DESCRIPTIONGordon Parks, courtesy of the Gordon Parks FoundationShady Grove, 1956.

Maurice Berger is a research professor and the chief curator at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a consulting curator at the Jewish Museum in New York. He is the author of 11 books, including a memoir, “White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness.” He curated a show, “For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights,” and contributed essays to “Gordon Parks: Collected Works” (Steidl, 2013).

 

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