Photographer O.N. Pruitt captured the stories of Columbus, Mississippi


On the banks of the Tombigbee River in Columbus, Mississippi, photographer ON Pruitt installed a large format camera on a tripod. In front of him, white and black people (children and adults alike) dressed to meet on Sundays gather for baptism. Some people raise their voice in the song. Two preachers, the Bible, open in their hands and prepare candidates for sacred ordinances—although separately and unequal.

When the two men lifted the girl in pure white clothes out of the water, the words “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” were still in the air, so Pluit released the shutter and the moment of the photo was forever. is.

Church groups of the black and white congregation gathered on Sunday along the Tombigbee River on a scale of Christian harmony and worked as witnesses to each other.

Half a century after those baptisms, and around that time, I moved into the early stages of my professional career as a writer, editor, and later a professor. A few boyhood friends and I found a treasure trove of Pluit photographs. The dusty mummified images were in wooden and cardboard boxes, smelling heaven as they deteriorated.

These included photos of Pluit taking me and my family on Thanksgiving and Christmas at my grandmother’s rambling Victorian home in 1954. My dad’s main street service station (slogan: “Don’t Cuss. Call Russ.”).

But there were many more in these boxes. It was a photo book of our hometown.

Throughout history, people have recorded their lives and families in letters, magazines and albums. You can also digitally map your family tree via a technology company such as But after finding those cardboard boxes full of negatives, it became unmistakable to reach out beyond the roots of our family’s trees to discover the stories of my community. ..

Finally, in 1987, these four friends and I got the collection to save it from the ash heap of history. Long before Google and, we unearthed stories and forgotten memories buried in the roots of the family tree. In some pictures, we discovered the grace of every day. Elsewhere, the blasphemous horror of racial apartheid. I’ve never heard of a particular story with some images. Nor is there the long-hidden beauty and resilience of the people within them.

Kanebreak rattlesnake girl around the 1920s.

Few photos have captions so you can find mysterious photos in your family’s albums and not know who or why they were taken. But curiosity has taught me that showing photos to relatives, friends, neighbors, and local librarians can make amazing discoveries.

Stories and images create a stunning American kaleidoscope of the early and mid-20th centuries. Studio portraits, picnics, floods of Bible proportions, carnivals, tornadoes, post-mortem coffins, final executions outside the court, celebrity heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey such as playwright Tennessee Williams, or world-famous Celebrities such as Birddog Trainer and Westminster Cup winner El Shelley.

Oscar West sits for portraiture in Onpruit’s studio

Before Google, it took me 10 years to sit in a wooden barrel and understand the name and story of a young black man who has a broom in one of Pluit’s studio portraits.

I can’t elaborate on everything, but the story is unleashed after finding Harley Knox Brown, a small white woman over the age of 90 who admitted Oscar West. He took care of her children and worked as the caretaker of her husband, Brown Buick Cadillac. She took me to West’s son, Oscar Lang. Lang taught us how West helped a five-year-old boy named Floyd Brown Jr.

As the story went on, West took two wooden milk boxes and used propellers to build them into an airplane. Then spinning it, West said to the boy: “Okay, now you’re flying.” He followed Lang after Brown retired as the administrator of the citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. Said like.

In another photo, Pluit depicts the execution of black James Keaton in 1934 on a gallows surrounded by white law enforcement officers outside the Lawns County Courthouse. As a boy in the 1960s, I delivered a newspaper to her widow, Mrs. Hayslet. I didn’t know what happened to her deceased husband, and I knew it wasn’t polite to ask. But when I was a kid, I always wondered. Now, in this picture, it turns out that it was James Keaton who was convicted of the murder of her husband. But when I asked another woman about the murder, she claimed that Keaton wasn’t committing a crime, but she knew who did. She didn’t reveal her name only because it was added to a mystery for generations.

Utah-raised boxer Jack Dempsey (center, without hat) stands beside carnival actor Madame Frosella during the buried living act of Great Pasha around 1930.

Some photos reveal the secrets of my stiff house, while others reveal the secrets of the country.

With his large camera in November 1930, Pluit captured the convergence of personality. Former World Heavyweight Champion Dempsey (formerly a teenage boxing Latter-day Saint in Provo and Salt Lake City), writer Truman Capote’s parents, and “Buried Creatures” with his performing companion Madame Frosella. The act of carnival known as Great Pasha.

Lily Mayfolk Parsons, the mother of Dempsey and Capote, had an affair at the time of the photo. Capote’s father, Archpersons, was in charge of Great Pasha. And, perhaps with the help of Lily May, Arch participated in a campaign to promote “Dollar Day” and “Dempsey Day” in Columbus, complete with Dempsey as a boxing match referee. I secured it. Fifteen years later, Capote wrote one of his earliest major short stories, The Tree of the Night. A curious college girl boarded a train and a couple of “buried and alive” carnivals appeared.

Another image, the Nitrate Negative, captures a middle-aged black man wearing overalls and grinning as a stopped mule stands beside him. Ten years after talking to people in town at a juke joint and digging through newspapers and magazines, I discovered his name: Sylvester Harris. And boy, does he have a story?

Peasant Harris was inspired by the fireside chat of Franklin D. Roosevelt. I heard the president broadcast on the radio to give a guarantee to Americans who were exhausted from the Great Depression. So, in February 1934, when Harris was unable to pay his mortgage, he drove a pickup truck to Columbus and called the president. He used the phone at the Western Supply store and arrived at Roosevelt 90 minutes later. Soon, the president agreed to help Harris save the farm from foreclosure. In today’s terminology, Harris has become viral — partly because Pluit took pictures that were distributed nationwide. The newsreel came to Harris’ farm to record this energetic black farmer who became the hero of the Great Depression.

In 1934, farmer Sylvester Harris with Jesse the mule outside his home in Plum Grove.

But more than learning the true story behind the first baptismal photo I dusted over the last 30 years that Pluit spent revealing the story of the 88,000 negatives he left behind on his stamps. No one has touched. In the 1950s and 1960s, I grew up in a red brick house four blocks away from the Tombigbee River. I swam and skied there with cottonmouth, crocodile gar, and catfish, but I had never seen or heard of the black-and-white baptism recorded by Pluit. There are many baptismal photographs from the south, which may exist, but no one has yet shown such a group of black and white churches together.

At the turn of the millennium, when my mother approached the age of 90, I showed her an image of baptism.Non-stop storyteller, she never told me That Story.

My mother grew up three blocks from the river. She said her sister and her brother raised baptists in a racially isolated church and often went to the river to see black and white baptism in the 1920s. Charles Reagan Wilson, a religious scholar at the University of Mississippi, calls the interracial population documented by Pluit “notable.” I wish my mother could teach me earlier as the pictures touch my heart and enrich how my family understands the confounding territory where they have lived for generations. .. The picture gives a new meaning to the song we sang at the first Baptist church when we declared that everyone was precious in the eyes of Jesus.

And while I found stories that plagued me deeply, I also found stories like these that provide a substantial measure of comfort and inspiration. After all, I believe my permanent discovery stay will serve as a compass for navigating the crossroads of our culture today.

I learned from these pictures left by the Columbus painting guy — and I believe everyone might. Harvard photography expert Barbara Norfleet, in “Champion Pig,” reveals that photography is good at asking questions, “what you don’t understand, and what you take for granted.” Can be done “reminds me. In 1941, a local commercial dispatch Pruitt studio ad said, “Photos live forever.” This heritage concept encourages me to ask: What questions do photos of our family and community ask? How can I find the answer? What can we all learn from these images that connect the past with the present and the future?

Berkley Hudson is an Honorary Associate Professor of Media History at the Missouri Journalism School in Colombia. His new book, “About Possum Town in Pluit: Photography of Trouble and Resilience in the Southern United StatesWas published by the University of North Carolina Press and the Documentary Research Center at Duke University.

This story appears in the February issue of Deseret Magazine.. Details on how to subscribe..


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