Tag Archives: Rural

Out of Time

A photo exhibit details the unusual history of a black family in early 20th-century rural Alabama.
By Ed Reynolds

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Geneva and Mitch Shackelford with unidentified child. (click for larger version)

 

 

August 09, 2012Through September 14, the downtown Birmingham Public Library is currently showcasing Both Sides of the Lens: Photographs by the Shackelford Family, Fayette County, Alabama (1900-1935). Featured on the library’s fourth floor gallery are 40 prints selected from 850 photos in the library’s Shackelford archives. Also on hand—and well worth taking time to peruse—are two thick notebooks that include dozens of archived Shackelford images not on display in the gallery. 

Mitch Shackelford was born during the Civil War. Adopted by a white family that he reportedly stayed in touch with for many years, Shackelford left home at age 21, eventually going to work for Southern Railroad. He and his wife Geneva moved to Covin, Alabama, in rural Fayette County, where they built a home that housed a couple of generations of Shackelfords. The residence became a boarding house and overnight rest stop for white and black travelers.

The Shackelfords were an oddity in the South in the early 20th century: an affluent black family with voting rights that owned vast quantities of land. Mitch and Geneva’s children found wealth by owning and operating syrup mills and sawmills as well as by farming and continuing to purchase land. As an entrepreneurial sideline, they maintained a commercial photography business, primarily making portraits. Clients included black and white area residents. Portraits were taken by two generations of Shackelfords in an era when stereotypical, racist images of blacks were prevalent in society. As noted in the exhibit: “The Shackelford photographs offer a dynamic and rarely seen depiction of the African-American experience in rural Alabama and show black people living full and vibrant lives in the face of the racial and socioeconomic oppression of the Jim Crow era.”

Birmingham native Andrew Nelson, currently at the University of Maryland, College Park, is largely responsible for the show. “This is the picture that started the journey that ended up being this exhibition,” Nelson explains, gesturing towards a photo of a nine-piece brass band that included three of Mitch Shackelford’s children. “A little over a year ago I started work on my Ph.D. dissertation and I had a conversation with a man named Joey Brackner, who is the director of the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture. Joey knew I was looking for pictures of old musicians. He told me about a collection that he had bought at the Bessemer Flea market over 20 years ago and donated to the Birmingham Public Library.” Nelson’s dissertation will be published as a book. A significant portion details the history of the brass band pictured in the collection.

The only thing known about the pictures was that they were taken in Fayette County sometime early in the 20th century. Nelson became fascinated with the images and began noticing the same house in many of the shots—the Shackelford home. He was determined to discover who had taken the photos. He went in search of the house, recognizing that his chances of finding it were slim due to the wooden structure having been built in 1900. He found a photograph of the house in the library in Fayette County as well as a map of the road where the house once stood. Eventually, he met Mitch and Geneva Shackelford’s great granddaughter, Annie Shackelford, who lives in the area. A friendship was forged. The Shackelford photo collection provided Annie with her first look at her great-grandparents. Annie Shackelford’s parents lived in the house until the early 1960s, before it began to deteriorate.

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(click for larger version)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Shackelford family developed their photos in an attic darkroom. Great-grandson Marvin Shackelford, of Alabaster, recalls playing there as a child. “We did not really know what it was all about,” he says. “We weren’t allowed up there. My boy cousins and my brothers and I would sneak up there and kind of snoop around a little bit. And I remember those glass plates [negatives] and everything, just like it was yesterday. But we didn’t have a clue what it was, really!”

Marvin explains that his grandfather was always helping the children with their cameras. “He would always be the one that would give us pointers when we had our little Polaroid-type cameras,” he recalls. “Like if we were facing the sun or whatever with the lens, he’d say, ‘No, no, no. You need to get the sun at your back,’ and that kind of thing.”

The photographs the Shackelfords made of neighbors wearing their Sunday finest contradicted the often demeaning stereotypical images of black Americans in the first half of the 20th century. “What a profound service it is that the Shackelfords provided the people in their community and beyond, to be able to represent themselves,” Andrew Nelson explains, calling the family “renaissance men.”

The brass band photo that first attracted Nelson to the collection indeed speaks volumes about the Shackelfords and other black residents socializing with whites in Fayette County in the early 1900s. The sign on the bass drum in the picture reads: “Big concert tonight at the Covin School-House given by the brass band beginning at 7:30. Seats for our white friends. Admission only 10 cents.”

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This brass band, of which three Shackelford children were members, poses in front of the Shackelford house. (click for larger version)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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