These are stories of hard times. They could be set in many different parts of the country, but they actually took place in South Central Texas, in Colorado County.
I have been coming to this area since my parents bought a farm here, over fifty years ago. I am a photographer and a lover of the Texas landscape. I spent many hours walking through the fields and woods, exploring and taking pictures, but I never really knew the people, and that felt sad to me.
So I decided to pay a visit to an elderly neighbor, Ivory Steward, to take his picture and hear his story. Somehow I knew I had a lot to learn from him. Ivory was a church deacon, a farmer, and a "water witch." We sat at his kitchen table, and I listened while Ivory reminisced, cried, and told funny stories. I was amazed by his openness, wisdom, and generosity.
Ivory died soon after that, but with that gentle man, and in that quiet way, began a project that was to last many years and change my life enormously: the gathering of people's stories. It became a journey of great learning for me.
So I bring you some of these special friends with their stories of hard times and survival, faith and forgiveness, friendship and celebration, for your enjoyment and learning."
These are the words that opened the oral history video I wrote and produced in 1995, Coming Through Hard Times. It featured many of the same individuals you will meet in this book, and the words that introduced the video now welcome you to this book as well.
How did the project begin? Innocently, through that first visit to Ivory Steward, camera and tape recorder in hand. I had only one idea in mind: to spend time with Ivory and get to know him better before he died. But Ivory had a lot to teach—and I had a lot to learn. It never entered my mind that this one visit would lead to twenty years of work: browsing the area, seeking and meeting interesting people, building lifelong friendships, creating a traveling photography show called "Colorado County Memories: Everybody Has a Story to Tell" (which I carried by rent truck from place to place), the award-winning video Coming Through Hard Times, and now this book.
I never meant to be a documentary photographer. A professional photographer and friend once told me, "You're not a photographer. You're an artist with a camera." And that was fine. Yet here I am, documenting people. A friend once called this process of working without a fixed goal "going ass-backwards into things." It works fine for me.
Ivory provided my first taste of the kind of wisdom I was to discover later in many other individuals in his rural community. I found these folks, often with minimal education, to have extraordinary skills for self-expression. They seemed to have an image of their life in its entirety, seeing patterns and relationships in a way very unlike the people I'd been familiar with, people who tended to see their lives in terms of achievements, education, and job titles. My rural friends see more patterns in life; they seem to possess a broader, more circular, holistic view of life that has been inspiring.
Their goodwill, the abiding humor and joy, the courage, resiliency, and faith they possess in the face of poverty and hard times, racism and bigotry, are amazing. That they emerged with spirits intact seems incredible. I took an audiotape of one conversation to a transcription service, and when I went to retrieve the document, the woman who had done the work came out from her desk to say "thank you." She said that it was the most enjoyable work she had ever done in that business. And she explained that she had no one among her older relatives and friends with the high spirits, positive attitude, and sense of fun that she found in the woman whose interview she had transcribed. She was feeling more hopeful for her own later years.
I wish you could actually hear their voices, so you could better appreciate the thoughts of my editor, Theresa May, on the poetry and melody to be found there. A high school English teacher once told me he was using Coming Through Hard Times in teaching a poetry class. Notice the deeply romantic way Lonzo Dorn and John Webb describe falling in love with their wives-to-be from the first glimpse, when they were youngsters—it's very open, loving, and heartfelt. Hear Mamie Johnson when she describes losing her baby girl at "one year, four months, and sixteen days"; the pain is palpable still, after more than seventy years. Enjoy the naughtiness in Eva Mae Glover and Lillie Williams as they tell stories of "dancin' bad," doing the "Maw Grind" and the "Sassy Wiggle." Eva Mae was a "bad wo-man," as she said. What fun they were having even in their last years—and what role models for the rest of us!
I found these to be people of great goodwill. As they welcomed this stranger into their houses, they also opened their hearts and were gracious in a way that was new to me. This generosity came even though the purpose of my work was vague at best. I never envisioned it as anything like a book or a film. Only once do I remember being turned down when asking for a picture. Folks were much more apt to say, as one woman did, "Sure, come on in the house. I'll show you the family album." No questions asked. No fear—only the willingness to share.
In the midst of this goodwill, there were times when I felt disturbed. One was an instance of meanness and racism when a white man mocked a mentally handicapped black man and called him "Creepin' Jesus." Another was when an elderly white man used the "N" word, that cruel, demeaning term. Yes, he was from an era when the word was commonly used, and he was getting senile. Yet my discomfort was deep, because it is painful to hear, ever. Otherwise, most individuals were like Lillie Freis, who spoke with love and caring of her black neighbors, describing how they helped each other and shared food and vegetables out of their gardens. The Kasper family at the meat market helped care for the jobless Jack Fields by giving him food. Everybody seemed to be treated equally at Kasper's.
Each photograph is set in the subjects' personal environment, wherever they were comfortable—living room, front yard, porch, or working environment. I loved the way Eva Mae Glover jammed her hat onto her head, pulling it down with both hands, getting ready for her picture. That was Eva Mae—cocky and confident as always.
It is important to remember that these stories are people's memories—they are not "the Truth," but are simply individuals' recollections. I remember a man who wrote the PBS station in Houston when it first aired Coming Through Hard Times, in which several of these same individuals spoke. In the video, Eva Mae Glover talked about the lynching that had happened sixty years earlier, in the hometown she shared with the angry author of the letter. He was furious and canceling his membership in the station because of what Eva Mae had said. He thought she had dishonored his friend, the dead girl's brother, and was "apt to cause major damage" in the community. Since lynching is about instilling fear and maintaining power and control, one can be sure that parts of the white community were worried when the story was finally spoken aloud after sixty years of fearful silence. Eva Mae was a courageous woman indeed, a fighter. The director of programming for the station wrote back to the angry man and pointed out that the stories had not been presented as factual. I feel honored to have been entrusted with these precious memories and want to do them honor. Thank you, Eva Mae.
There is one point I want to make regarding the lynching and the other acts of bigotry, racial meanness, cruelty, and discrimination as related in these stories. In no way do I intend to imply that these horrific attitudes and incidents were particular to Colorado County or that they define the people of Colorado County. Rather, racism, bigotry, discrimination, and acts of terrorism were (and still are to a degree) commonplace from California (where the targets were usually Asian or Hispanic) to the East Coast, across most parts of the United States. Both Columbus and Weimar are towns with charm, warmth, and a sense of welcome. These racist attitudes and behaviors were widely accepted across American without question—South Central Texas was not immune.
Gresham Marmion, a retired Episcopal bishop who tried to stop the lynching, also appeared in the video. I want to thank him in memoriam. He too had great courage. When we talked, he admitted, humbly, that he could easily have been one of the lynch mob if he had not had some fortunate life opportunities that changed him: a chance to travel and to attend divinity school. And he was so frightened on the night of the killing that he remembered almost nothing about it. He simply knew he had tried to stop the murder, standing alone on the hood of a car, the only dissenter, before a large crowd of angry and determined citizens. Someone said there was a rope for him too, if he kept on—he didn't remember this part clearly. And he knew he had no choice—he left. He could remember no faces afterwards, yet he knew some of them were his parishioners, few of whom ever mentioned the awful deed. Gresham came to realize that his entire life had been altered by this one event, that he had ever since taken an active part in the civil rights movement—a good man.
And where did this interest in the lives of others, especially the black community, come from? It's hard to say, yet I do believe that always, even as a small child, there was in me a deep curiosity about other people, and a puzzlement and confusion around many of our society's secrets. I remember asking questions of my mother about the people who worked in our house, a cook and a nurse: If we loved and cared for them, how come we never went to their house, or had them over for dinner, or shared Christmas? It was clear they loved us and we them—so what did it all mean? I remember being disturbed by some racist and demeaning cartoons we sometimes saw at the movies; even then, they were troubling to me and not funny, although some people laughed. The African American man who walked to our house with his mower and tools to do yard work—where did he go when he disappeared so suddenly and mysteriously? (The answer was that he went to prison and to his execution, facts I did not know for years. All the whispering and mystery around him was troubling, and this is a story in itself.) My questions were met with the equivalent of "Don't ask, don't worry, everything is fine," and then silence.
To me, my life growing up seemed small and limited in some ways. I wanted to get out and explore, wander and learn more, go into people's homes and lives, share with them. So it seems natural to end up doing this type of work, the work of exploration with camera and recorder. And it's interesting to recognize that although I always disliked history class and found it dry and boring, I was later called a historian. That felt strange initially. Yet, learning directly from individuals' words about their lives, that is history that has life and meaning for me.
I was asked by an African American woman, how could I not have known the extent of racism and racial violence all around as I grew up? In truth, the system of silence, secrecy, and white privilege works so effectively that the truth is well hidden from us, the privileged white folks. I was shushed so often that after a while my questions stopped, and the discomfort got tamped down. I knew no one who talked about or questioned the system. As a grown woman, I believe this is shameful, and I feel sad, angry, and embarrassed about it. Without the friends whose beautiful images appear here, I would never have had the wider understanding they gave me.
I appreciate the words I read recently on "whiteness" in an exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York. I admire the clarity with which the author, Maurice Berger, expresses himself:
To be white in American culture today means occupying a social norm so powerful and pervasive that it is rarely even acknowledged. As a marker of identity, whiteness remains an ever-present, and largely unexplored, state of mind and body. This exhibition offers a critical examination of how white skin and white privilege inexorably shape images of the world—and suggests ways we might be able to change them.
Until recently, discussions about race and representation have focused almost exclusively on the experience and struggles of people of color. Such investigations were—and continue to be—essential to peeling back the complex layers of the very idea of race. But they most often left aside the category of "whiteness," which has remained largely invisible, unconscious, presumed. Yet failing to mark whiteness—to probe it and assign it meaning—means failing to take a hard look at a vital component of the social construction of race. In the end, to overlook representations of whiteness is not only to encourage their predominance but also to neglect their potential frailties and weaknesses. No full discussion of race can be complete without addressing these often elusive images.
. . . the works in "White" strive to challenge traditional notions of race, urging us to look beyond entrenched stereotypes, surprising blind spots, and the received ideas that help keep the race debate restricted to comfortable, familiar modes of discussion.
I believe that even today, we white folks have little recognition of our privilege, the privilege we enjoy without earning it, simply by benefit of our skin color. Black friends have told me stories of things I never experienced—for example, being taught as a child that it was not safe to cross Main Street, the primary city artery. My friend who told me this was finally driven across that dreaded barrier as an adult, by his friend Mickey Leland, against my friend's better judgment. Another black friend still recalls being teased and intimidated as a child by the white policemen in his neighborhood, men who were supposed to be there to protect him, not torment him. There was the man who had the letters "KKK" cut into his chest, in Hermann Park in central Houston in the 1960s. Chilling, isn't it?
We whites do not experience people watching us furtively over their shoulders when we are walking behind them. We have been expecting and receiving acceptance and privilege in the workplace, in school and hospital admissions, in lines at the movies, virtually everywhere. A younger black friend told me how glad she and her friends and family were when finally, one day a week, they were allowed to visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Many an African American was refused hospital care in the past, so I am proud that my maternal grandfather gave funds for the first Houston hospital where black doctors could practice and black patients be admitted. We have a lot to learn still about all of this.
My hope is that you, the reader, will experience some of the wisdom, joy, and proud spirit I have enjoyed from these extraordinary folks as they speak to us from their hearts. I have learned so much and have enjoyed doing this work profoundly. I feel fortunate and richly rewarded. May you be also.