Blue Greenberg: Under segregation, images show rich, full lives for blacks

Jan. 17, 2013 @ 03:58 PM

“The Restraints: Open and Hidden,” Gordon Parks’ Life Magazine Segregation Series, Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, 1317 W. Pettigrew St., through March 2. Gallery hours are Monday-Thursday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For information, call 919-660-3663.

On Sept. 24, 1956, Life Magazine published “The Restraints: Open and Hidden,” a photographic essay with pictures by Gordon Parks (1912-2006) and words by Robert Wallace (1923-1992). The Emancipation Proclamation was 93 years old and Brown v. Board of Education had been law for just two years. In vivid color the magazine focused on freedom and lack of it for black Americans through the life of one family, Mr. and Mrs. Albert Thornton.
The essay follows the Thorntons, their children and grandchildren and seeks to show the magazine’s largely white audience that black people, even those living under segregation, lived rich, full, ordinary lives. Not only was the theme groundbreaking, the 12-page spread in color by the first black photographer to work full-time for Life added to a series of firsts in American popular culture.
According to Courtney Reid-Eaton, exhibitions director at the Center for Documentary Studies, color was new to the magazine world. In fact, she said, museums did not collect color photography until the 1970s and newspapers did not publish in color until the 1980s. “Life,” she continued, “was huge and when they published this piece in color it reinforced the fact this was a story about real people with real lives.”
The Thorntons lived just outside Mobile, Ala. Albert was the son of a slave, had been a sharecropper and was now an independent farmer; Mrs. Thornton is 17 years younger. The article describes her as “passive, illiterate and devout.” Parks introduces the couple in a portrait, celebrating their 50th anniversary; they have nine children and 19 grandchildren. Of those nine, four made it to college. They all work and among them are mechanics, farmers, one teacher and one college professor. In 1956 the elder Thorntons were living on a bit of land with two Jersey cows, a few chickens, and a vegetable garden. They received a Social Security monthly check of $120. Thornton agreed things for blacks were better, but segregation was still a restraint on their lives.
Over the next pages we read about daughter Allie Lee Causey, a divorced mother of one, who has been a teacher since 1939. Her schoolhouse is a four-room shack with no plumbing, so she brings water from home in a gallon jug for the first- and second-graders. Here the photograph is of one class with the children all scrubbed and glistening, sitting against a backdrop of a dilapidated room. Causey took summer courses at Alabama State College for Negroes but does not have a degree. We are told the Board of Education has so much trouble getting qualified black teachers they will approve almost anyone with a modicum of education. She earns $2,400 a year.
Her second husband Willie Causey owns 16 acres of crop land and 24 acres of timber. With the help of several of his sons, he cuts timber and sells the wood cuts to a Mobile paper mill. When he was offered a major contract from the mill, several of his white competitors came to see him and advised him not to take it. Understanding this as a veiled threat he refused the contract, so the young Causey’s life is better but the restraints are still there.
Granddaughter Virgie Lee Turner is 25, with four children and a husband with a civil service job which pays $80 a week. Financially they are better off than a lot of white people, but their children cannot play on the city playground and the house they are building will be four crowded rooms in a black neighborhood. Unlike the white man, who can live anywhere he can afford; they can only live in a segregated area.
The Thorntons’ most successful child is E.J., with a BS from Tuskegee and a MA from the University of Massachusetts. He is now department head at Tennessee State University. One picture shows E.J. in his academic robes at a big party on the Tennessee lawn; another shows him and his family, dressed in their Sunday best, walking into the Colored Waiting Room when they were traveling by bus from one city to another.
Parks has a phenomenal background. He taught himself how to use a camera and found, while documenting the truth, he had an uncanny sense of composition. The combination of documentary sensibilities and artistic composition won him a Julius Rosenwald fellowship in photography and, with that, was the first African-American to be a part of the Farm Security Administration. He went with the agency in 1942 and coming from Kansas, Minnesota and Chicago was devastated by the racism he encountered in Washington, D.C. One of his most famous pictures is of Ella Watson, a custodian in the FSA building. We see her erect with a mop in one hand and a broom in the other standing in front of the American flag. His reference to Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” is damning. Parks was also a staff photographer for Vogue Magazine, a published writer and a successful Hollywood director; “Shaft” was his most famous movie.
Reid-Eaton told me the impetus for this small exhibit, which just contains blow-ups of the Sept. 24, 1956, pages of Life Magazine, was an article she read about a cache of 70 color transparencies that were found just last spring in a storage box marked “Segregation Series.” She is still in the process of seeing how the center can get hold of those images and mount a big show about Parks and his work at Life, but for now she is happy to show this 1956 photo essay.
Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, P.O. Box 2092, Durham, NC 27702.