On a Tombigbee Riverbank in Columbus, Mississippi, photographer O.N. Pruitt sets up his large-format camera atop a tripod. Before him, white and Black people — kids and grown-ups alike, in Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes — gather for baptism. Some lift their voices in song. Two preachers, Bibles open in hand, prepare candidates — albeit separately and unequally — for the sacred ritual.
As two men lift a young girl clad in all-white garments out of the water and the words “In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit” would have stilled in the air, Pruitt trips the shutter, and the photographic moment is forever.
A half-century after those baptisms — and around the time I moved into the early stages of a professional career as a writer, editor and later professor — several boyhood friends and I discovered a treasure trove of Pruitt pictures. Covered in dust, mummified images resided in wooden crates and pasteboard boxes, smelling to high heaven as they deteriorated.
These included the pictures Pruitt had made of me and my family at Thanksgiving and Christmas at my grandmother’s rambling Victorian house in 1954. He photographed my grandparents’ Sanitary Laundry and Dry Cleaners (their slogan was “When clothes are dirty, dial 630”) and my daddy’s Main Street Service Station (slogan: “Don’t Cuss. Call Russ.”).
But in these boxes, there was so much more. It was our hometown’s photobiography.
Throughout history, people have documented their lives and their families in letters and journals and albums — even digitally mapping their family trees by way of tech companies like Ancestry.com. But in the aftermath of finding those pasteboard boxes full of negatives, the value in reaching down beyond the roots of our family tree to discover the stories of my community became unmistakable.
Eventually, in 1987, these four friends and I acquired the collection to rescue it from history’s dustbin. Long before Google or Ancestry.com, we unearthed stories buried among family tree roots and forgotten memories. In some photos, we discovered everyday graces. In others, profane horrors of racial apartheid. We’d never heard before of the specific stories some images depicted. Nor of the long-hidden beauty and resilience of the people in them.
Few pictures had captions, in the way you might find puzzling photos in a family album and not know who is pictured or why. But fueled by curiosity, I learned that if you show pictures to your relatives, friends, neighbors or local librarians, you can make amazing discoveries.
The stories and images create a stunning American kaleidoscope of the early and mid-20th century: studio portraits, picnics, floods of biblical proportions, carnivals, tornadoes, postmortem caskets, among the last public executions outside a courthouse, celebrities such as playwright Tennessee Williams and heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey, or an in-town celebrity such as world-renowned bird dog trainer and Westminster Cup winner Er Shelley.
It took me 10 pre-Google years to figure out the name and story of the young Black man shown seated on a wooden barrel and holding a broom in one of Pruitt’s studio portraits.
Although I can’t detail everything, I can say that a story unspooled after I found a tiny white woman over age 90, Hawley Knox Brown, who recognized Oscar West. He had cared for her children and worked as a janitor for her husband’s Brown Buick-Cadillac Co. She led me to West’s son, Oscar Lang. Lang told me how West helped a 5-year-old boy named Floyd Brown Jr.
As the story goes, West took two wooden milk crates and fashioned them into an airplane with a propeller. Then, spinning it, West said to the boy: “All right, now, you’re flying.” After Brown had retired as an administrator of the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, he told Lang: “The reason I’m sitting here now as a retired military colonel, as a flier, is (because of) your daddy.”
In another photograph, Pruitt depicted the 1934 execution of James Keaton, a Black man on a gallows surrounded by white law enforcement officials outside of the Lowndes County Courthouse. For years as a young boy in the 1960s, I delivered the newspaper to Mrs. Hayslett, a widow. I never knew what had happened to her late husband, and I knew it wasn’t polite to ask. But as a kid, I always wondered. Now, with this photograph, I’d pieced together that it was James Keaton who was convicted for the murder of her husband. But when I asked another woman about the murder, she claimed that Keaton didn’t commit the crime, but she knew who did. It only added to the generationslong mystery that she wouldn’t disclose the name.
While some photographs reveal my tight-lipped home’s secrets, others unveil national ones.
With his large-format camera in November 1930, Pruitt captured a convergence of personalities: former world heavyweight champion Dempsey (once a teenage boxing Latter-day Saint in Provo and Salt Lake City), the parents of author Truman Capote and a “buried alive” carnival act known as The Great Pasha with his performing companion Madame Flozella.
Dempsey and Capote’s mother — Lillie Mae Faulk Persons — were having an affair around the time of the photograph. Capote’s father, Arch Persons, managed The Great Pasha. And, likely with Lillie Mae’s assistance, Arch had secured Dempsey’s participation in a campaign to promote “Dollar Days” and “Dempsey Day” in Columbus, complete with Dempsey as a boxing match referee. Fifteen years later, Capote would write one of his earliest major short stories, “A Tree of Night.” It featured a “buried alive” carnival couple, riding on a train across the seat from a curious college woman.
Another image, a nitrate negative, captures a middle-aged Black man wearing worn overalls and grinning as his haltered mule stands beside him. After 10 years of talking to people all over town and in juke joints and combing through newspapers and magazines, I discovered his name: Sylvester Harris. And boy, does he have a story.
A farmer, Harris was inspired by hearing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats — pep talks the president broadcast on the radio to give assurances to Americans made weary from the ravages of the Great Depression. So in February 1934, when Harris couldn’t make his mortgage payments, he drove his pickup truck into Columbus to call the president. He used a phone at the Western Supply store, and after 90 minutes he reached Roosevelt himself. Quickly, the president agreed to help Harris save the farm from foreclosure. In today’s parlance, Harris went viral — partly due to Pruitt’s taking a picture that was distributed nationally. Newsreels came to Harris’ farm to record this spunky Black farmer who became a hero of the Great Depression.
But over the last three decades that I’ve spent uncovering the stories of the 88,000 negatives that Pruitt left behind from his postage stamp of soil, none have touched me more than learning the real story behind that first baptism photo I dusted off. In the 1950s and 1960s, I grew up in a red-brick house four blocks from the Tombigbee riverside. I swam and skied there with its cottonmouths, alligator gar and catfish, but I’d never seen or heard anything about the Black and white baptisms Pruitt documented. There are many baptism photographs from the South, and although they may exist, I’ve yet to find others showing Black and white church groups together like this.
When my mother neared age 90, at the turn of the millennium, I showed her the baptism images. A nonstop storyteller, she’d never told me that story.
My mother had grown up three blocks from the river. She said she, her sister and her brothers, raised Baptist in a racially segregated church, often went to the river in the 1920s to watch the Black and white baptisms. University of Mississippi religion scholar Charles Reagan Wilson calls the biracial assemblage documented by Pruitt “remarkable.” I wish my mother had told me sooner because the pictures resonate to my core, enriching how I understand the confounding region where my family has lived for generations. The pictures give a new meaning to the song we sang at the First Baptist Church when we declared everyone is precious in Jesus’ sight.
And while I’ve discovered stories that deeply trouble me, I’ve also found stories such as these that provide substantial measures of comfort and inspiration. In the end, I believe that my persistent sojourn of discovery can serve as a compass, if you will, for navigating our cultural crossroads of today.
I’ve learned from these photos left behind by Columbus’ picture man — and I believe that everyone might. Harvard photography expert Barbara Norfleet reminds us in “The Champion Pig” that photographs are excellent at raising questions and “can reveal what you do not understand, and also what you take for granted.” In 1941, a Pruitt studio advertisement in the local Commercial Dispatch stated: “Photographs Live Forever.” This notion of legacies prompts me to ask: What questions do our family and community photographs pose? How might we uncover answers? What might we all learn from these images that connect our pasts with our presents and futures?
Berkley Hudson is emeritus associate professor of media history at the Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia. His new book, “O.N. Pruitt’s Possum Town: Photographing Trouble and Resilience in the American South,” was published by the University of North Carolina Press with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.