Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Worth a Thousand Words

Near the end of her 2016 book, Race, Representation, and Photography in 19th-Century Memphis: From Slavery to Jim Crow, Earnestine Lovelle Jenkins, a professor of art history at the University of Memphis, writes that “it was astonishing to look into the faces of people who were, for all intents and purposes, ancestral Memphians.” The faces in question belonged to a slave at the Hunt-Phelan home named Catherine Hunt, who was a domestic servant; another slave, a teenager named Harry, a “stable hand” owned by John Trigg, “one of the wealthiest slave owners in the Memphis area”; and several dozen inhabitants of a contraband camp of free blacks near Fort Pickering, on the city’s south side. The faces are captured in four photographs: two of Catherine Hunt and one each of Harry and the camp. In each of the two photographs of Catherine Hunt, which were taken about six months apart between 1852 and 1855, the domestic servant is shown holding a white baby named Julia Tate Hunt. The photograph of Harry was taken between 1862 and 1864 and is owned by the Pink Palace Family of Museums; Harry is wearing “castoff clothing associated with the Union” and is seated in a high-back wooden chair. The photograph of the contraband camp was taken by J. W. Taft, a Memphis photographer, and is “remarkable for the overriding presence of women and children.” “For most of these former slaves,” Professor Jenkins writes, “it would have been the first time they were engaged in picture-taking activity.”

When slavery ended in 1865, the new medium of photography was just becoming an everyday part of American life. Frederick Douglass, who sat for no fewer than 160 photographs and thus was the most photographed man of his time in the United States, believed that photography was vital to the success of newly freed African Americans: they could use photography to exercise agency, control their self-image, and build community.

How blacks did so is the subject of a small but growing number of studies that now includes Professor Jenkins’s book. Published by Ashgate, Race, Representation, and Photography in 19th-Century Memphis is a fascinating look, through visual culture, at black life in Memphis in the several decades before and after the Civil War. As such, it is a welcome counterweight to the city’s recent historiography, which tends heavily toward the twentieth century and especially the postwar period.

As Professor Jenkins explains, her approach is to “emphasize the study of historic photographs of black Memphians deeply contextualized within their local experience, but at the same time, influenced by the larger African American narrative” (278). Thus, in the opening chapter, the advertisements in Memphis newspapers for slave auctions and runaway slaves are discussed in the context of the city’s position as a center of the domestic interstate slave trade. In chapter 2, an examination of the two photographs of Catherine Hunt is preceded by a history of the Hunt-Phelan home. The photograph of the contraband camp is interpreted against the backdrop of Fort Pickering, which, almost two miles long, dominated the riverfront, and the many camps that surrounded it.

In the course of the book we meet several Memphians who are missing from most historical accounts of the city. One is Morris Henderson (1802–1877), who founded what is known today as the First Baptist Beale Street Church. A portrait of Reverend Henderson hangs on the east wall of the foyer of the church and, with the notable exception of images of Robert Church Sr., is “one of the few images of African American leaders to survive the Reconstruction era in Memphis.” Henderson was involved with a black orphanage known as the Canfield Orphan Asylum, which became so well known that in 1866 it was featured in a front-page story in Harpers Weekly, complete with illustrations by the famous combat artist Alfred Waud. After Reverend Morris died, a monument was built for him in Zion Cemetery, where he is buried.

Another Memphian we learn about in Professor Jenkins’s book is James P. Newton, the first black photographer in Memphis. Newton was one of forty-two black Americans featured in an 1897 publication titled Sparkling Gems of Race Knowledge Worth Reading, published in connection with the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. His success as a photographer, Professor Jenkins explains, must be seen in the context of the New Negro movement, which enlisted black photographers to create positive images of African Americans that countered racist stereotypes.

Beginning as she does with photographs—static images that capture a particular person in a particular place at a particular time—Professor Jenkins explores her subject with a sense of wonder. She peers into this photograph of Catherine Hunt, that photograph of Harry the stable hand, and constructs the immediate world they and others like them inhabited, taking cues from the details visible in each picture. In the process, she gives us a history of Memphis that is personal—and so very human.  

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