What might have been.

A post office custodian by day, African-American photographer Richard S. Roberts maintained a studio in Columbia, South Carolina’s segregated business district. Between 1920 and 1936, he created a prodigious visual archive of Black life in the city.

Roberts captured the arresting image below circa 1926. The undertaker firm is believed to be Manigault-Gaten-Williams, and it is reasonable to think that a high-end Darden and Sons funeral in Wilson might have looked much the same way.

Treat yourself to A True Likeness: The Black South of Richard Samuel Roberts 1920-1936, an extraordinary compilation of this artist’s work. I am painfully reminded of the lost oeuvre of George W. “Picture-Taking” Barnes, Ray J. Dancy, John H.W. Baker, and other Wilson photographers.

The shoe shine contest.

This photograph posted yesterday to the Instagram account, and my inbox blew up. Here’s the back story.

Back in September 2013, a couple of years before Black Wide-Awake launched, Will Robinson posted this to Wilson County Public Library’s local history and genealogy blog:

I jumped on it:


… which led to an email exchange:

… which led to Will Robinson finding this 23 February 1952 Daily Times article about the event, which took place at Reid Street Community Center:

… which led to this September 2014 WUNC article that includes a dozen contest photos and short video featuring contest winner Curtis Phillips (and my cousin Otis Sherrod talking about his brother Earnest Sherrod, who’s the boy at far left.) 

Wilson County Public Library later exhibited the prints Linda Zimmerman donated, and she graciously extended me the opportunity to purchase a print of the photo posted yesterday. Almost exactly ten years after I first saw John Zimmerman’s work, I’m delighted to these priceless images find a wider audience. 

Chillun’s croon.

I’ve written here of Mateo Ruiz Gonzalez, the Colombia-born, Brooklyn-based photographer who found inspiration in Black Wide-Awake during his month-long artist’s residency with Eyes on Main Street. Not long ago, Mateo sent me a copy of a slender volume of photography that emerged from his time in Wilson:

“Chilluns’ Croon investigates themes of the past such as absence, remembrance, spirituality, and mortality of formerly enslaved people of Wilson County, North Carolina. An intimate portrait of an African American community, Chilluns’ Croon hums songs of hope, equality, and change for new generations.”

See here for a recent review of Ruiz Gonzalez’ work.

Reproductions of images copyrighted by Mateo Ruiz Gonzalez.

Home sweet homeland.

I’m very conscious that the Wilson that I regard as home is not really a place that exists any more. It’s an idea. It’s maybe even an idealization. And I have to be careful not to romanticize what Wilson is, or even what Wilson was. My name is Lisa Y. Henderson. As much as Wilson is home for me, I’ve wondered if I could live here now. But I feel really incredibly fortunate to have grown up when and where I did. My closest community had a little core of first-generation, middle-class, college-educated African-Americans. My parents’ generation. And they came together in this town in the early 1960’s, in an era when there was obviously a lot of promise for change for Black people. But that promise mostly was being realized on a remote level, on a national level, and I grew up in a very, very segregated Wilson. I was too young to understand segregation. I was shielded from it, and I certainly never thought of myself in any as inferior to white people. We were conscious of white people, but they weren’t really part of our world. That didn’t change much even when I attended integrated schools. These past six or seven years, I’ve been coming home to give a couple of talks in February. Black History Month. And as a result of those talks, people have sought me out to learn more. I appreciate that. That’s part of of what I’m trying to do — to make people conscious of, or to think about the role of Black people in Wilson’s history. I feel like I have this incredible responsibility in this town — to sort of help it be a better place for everybody who lives here. To expand the idea of to whom history belongs. I think people, especially young people, feel disconnected from the idea of history. They don’t see how it matters. But when you can look around you, and see now only what’s here, but what was here, it makes it easier to think about what could be here. Now that you know what people have done, it’s easier to imagine what you can do. 

The passage above was condensed from a much longer interview in which I talked to photojournalist Keith Dannemiller about the idea of “home.” I am honored to be included in his exhibition, Homesweet, Homeland, now on display at Wilson’s Barton College. Dannemiller, who has lived in Mexico for more than 30 years, first came to Wilson for Eyes on Main Street‘s artist residency. Says Dannemiller, “Comprised of 50 color prints and 16 tintype portraits with accompanying interviews, Homesweet, Homeland is a personal journey of rediscovery of America and its essential diversity, in a region burdened by the baggage of tradition, the vestiges of slavery, and the concentration of power in the hands of a few, but with the hope and potential to forge a new, more inclusive community out of the manifold Souths of today.”

Lane Street Project: the Senior Force at work.

Jerome De Perlinghi’s Eyes on Main Street has enriched Wilson not only via its astonishing yearly public exhibition of world-renowned photographers, but with its artist residency program. In October, New York City native Chris Facey brought his Leica to Wilson’s streets. He found Black Wide-Awake and reached out to me to get his bearings; I immediately connected him with Castonoble Hooks.

In the short time since, Facey has become an honorary member of the Hooks family. Though his residency lasted only a month, he returns regularly to Wilson and has made to Lane Street Project the profound gift of his documentary eye. Yesterday, Facey was at Odd Fellows Cemetery as the Senior Force — Castonoble Hooks, his brother William Hooks, and R. Briggs Sherwood — put in work.

Thank you, Chris Facey! 

All photos courtesy of Christopher Facey, who reserves all rights to their use.