An all-black town.
An all-black town? It was a stray mention in a book on the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, but Jamelle Bouie was intrigued.
An all-black town. “It got stuck in my craw,” says Bouie.
He found a few local news articles, a mini documentary film, and a couple books on the subject—the dozens of towns founded in Oklahoma by free blacks who’d migrated west after Emancipation—but that was it. For Bouie, a journalist whose work focuses on, among other things, politics and race in America, that wasn’t enough. He needed to know more.
In March of this year, he flew to Oklahoma to see these towns for himself.
Over the course of 72 hours, Bouie visited 12 of the 13 surviving all-black towns and photographed 10 of them. Fourteen of those photos are on view at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center through July 13.
“Simply: The Black Towns” is Bouie’s first-ever photography exhibition, and his own contribution to the awareness of a history that’s largely unknown.
Bouie himself is pretty well-known as a writer. After fellowships at The Nation magazine and The American Prospect, he was a staff writer at The Daily Beast and later chief political correspondent for Slate. Currently, he’s a political analyst for CBS News (perhaps you’ve seen him on the “Face the Nation” roundtable) and an opinion columnist for The New York Times. As he puts it, he’s written most days of most weeks for nearly 10 years.
Hundreds of thousands of people read his columns, and the Columbia Journalism Review, in a story by David Uberti published earlier this year, called him “one of the defining commentators on politics and race in the Trump era.”
Bouie is very active on Twitter (@jbouie), where his more than 266,000 followers get a regular dose of his thoughtful perspective on political and social issues national, international, and local (he lives in Charlottesville), mixed in with opinions about books, TV, and cereal (he recently opined that Cinnamon Toast Crunch Churros cereal is superior to regular Cinnamon Toast Crunch. They don’t get soggy right away, he says. “Because they have more surface area, they don’t take in milk as quickly”). Occasionally, he shares a photograph.
Bouie is a much more active photographer than his Twitter—or his Instagram profile, “New York Times columnist. Sometimes photographer”—would suggest. When Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, came across Bouie’s photography on Instagram, she was struck by his interest in landscape and curious about “the relationship of that visual language” in the larger context of his critical thinking and writing. Douglas sees Bouie’s photography as allowing his audience “a way to move into another sphere of engaging with his mind.”
When Douglas texted Bouie with an exhibition offer, Bouie agreed right away, though he wasn’t sure what photos he’d show. He’d been pursuing photography for years, but he hadn’t yet thought of it as something that could, or would, be seen beyond social media. “I don’t necessarily think of myself as an artist, in that way,” he says. “Even though I share lots of photos and every so often I think, ‘hey, that’s a strong image.’”
Being asked to exhibit his photography was “intimidating…which is a funny thing to say, because my day job is writing opinion pieces for The New York Times,” says Bouie. “A shocking number of people read these things. But for whatever reason, I can deal with that psychologically. Presenting my photographs to people? Much more intimidating.”
He says his writing, which focuses on “American history and the history of racism and class,” has “been described as a little opaque, and not entirely scrutable. And the photography is, in a real way, something that is much more personal.”
Of course it is. Photography shows where the artist has been, what he concerns himself with, what catches his eye, what he’s thinking about. It can say a lot about the person who stopped in his tracks, raised the camera to one eye, squinted through the viewfinder, and clicked the button. That’s not nothing.
Like most people, Bouie first encountered photography casually, using point-and-shoot and disposable cameras. He started pointing and shooting with more intention after graduating from UVA in 2009 with a degree in government and political and social thought, while working odd jobs at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. One of those odd jobs was taking photos at the center’s events, and Bouie was allowed to take the digital SLR camera and lens home to play with after-hours.
Not long after, Bouie started working as a journalist. He bought his own slick digital camera and used it, again, as most people would: to take snapshots on personal and work trips, “nothing very serious,” he says. And then his now mother-in-law gave him a film SLR camera.
Shooting film on an all-manual camera got Bouie thinking about the art of photography. Bouie says the “finiteness” of having, say, 36 exposures in a single roll of 35-millimeter film, made him contemplate what he wanted to photograph: If he had just 36 exposures, which 36 did he want to capture? And why? Photography was no longer just pointing and shooting.
Bouie was living in Washington, D.C., at the time, and he started the habit of taking his camera everywhere he went. He’d wander around downtown D.C. to practice framing shots, spotting interesting portrait subjects and getting comfortable asking complete strangers if he could take their picture. In 2017, he signed up for darkroom classes at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop to learn how to develop film and make his own prints.
His teacher, Katherine Akey, was immediately struck by his “passion for the medium. He constantly wanted to try new things, new ways of framing, new cameras, new darkroom applications. That kind of enthusiasm allows for a really fast pace of growth and exploration, like compost on a garden,” says Akey.
Soon, Bouie was spending eight hours a week in the darkroom, developing not just film but his eye.
“I still have a hard time saying that I have any subject,” says Bouie, who, at 32, is young, still new to the medium, and therefore in the process of defining his perspective as a photographer. But he has noticed that there are a few things that always catch his attention: geometries (particularly man-made geometries), symmetry, interplay of light and shadow. He shoots almost exclusively with normal lenses, “something that captures what the human eye sees or focuses on,” says Bouie.
He likes “old stuff.” Maybe that’s cliché, he says—lots of people like old stuff—but he totally gets why. Old stuff is undeniably compelling. For Bouie, the draw is two-fold: it’s the architecture itself and “trying to imagine what something would have looked like when it was loved. When people were doing the best they [could] to maintain it.” He likes thinking about how (and why) a building or an object that was once so lovingly created and maintained, has fallen into disrepair.
“This is a little morbid,” he adds, but there’s something fascinating about thinking about that cycle of care and neglect, of moving on, “as an inevitable thing. And there’s some beauty in that inevitability.”
He prefers to shoot in black and white, in part because he finds color film distracting, but also because, in his opinion, black and white film helps him better emphasize all those aspects that catch his eye: shape, shadow, story.
Bouie’s growing desire to create an intentional body of photographic works collided, “fortuitously,” he says, with his curiosity about the black towns and Douglas’ suggestion for an exhibition.
It was also a chance to combine, in a very concrete way, his journalistic interests with his photographic ones.
At first glance, these photographs might look and feel familiar: black and white images of buildings in various states of disrepair. But the viewer almost certainly has not seen these places, and has not heard the story Bouie’s photographs tell.
After the Civil War, tens of thousands of free blacks migrated to Kansas, which was known for being an anti-slavery state during the war, and “relatively friendlier to free blacks,” says Bouie. And when the Oklahoma Territory opened up in the 1890s (the federal government confiscated some 2 million acres of land from Native American tribes there in 1866), a new wave of black settlers moved there, too, fleeing the oppression and racial terror of the post-Reconstruction South.
The movement was led by two of the black men who had spearheaded the migration to Kansas—William Eagleton, a newspaperman, and Edward P. McCabe, a politician and businessman. Bouie purposefully said their names during his May 11 artist talk for the opening of “Simply: The Black Towns” at the JSAAHC, and read from one of the advertisements in Eagleton’s paper: “Give yourself a new start. Give yourselves and children new chances in a new land, where you will not be molested. Where you will be able to think and vote as you please.”
Bouie also read one of McCabe’s—“Here in Oklahoma, the negro can rest from mob law. He can be secure from every ill of Southern policies”—and a comment from an ordinary person, made in the 1890s: “We as a people believed that Africa is the place. But to get from under bondage, we are thinking Oklahoma, as this is our nearest place to safety.”
Black Southerners were willing to set out for a new land to attain some measure of freedom. What’s interesting, said Bouie during his artist talk, is “that this is the story of Western settlement of the United States in general.”
By 1900, black farmers owned and farmed many thousands of acres of land in the Midwest, and settlers founded more than 30 towns in Oklahoma alone, most of them scattered around the eastern part of the territory. They built homes, churches, schools, hotels, businesses, all with the hope that if they proved themselves hard workers who had attained an amount of political and economic freedom, white people would take notice and extend full rights to black people.
“Think about the people who made the decision to leave the South” and move west, says Douglas. Tens of thousands of people. “The quality and the quantity of that aspiration, it cannot be missed.”
The towns themselves were (and still are) very tidy and orderly, intentionally laid out on grids and full of “beautiful, stately buildings that were showcasing the ability of the people who came here to prosper and survive, and to make something out of what was really nothing,” says Bouie.
The prosperity wouldn’t last. In 1907, Oklahoma became a state, Jim Crow became law of the land, and the racism these people tried to escape in the South caught up to them. Poor weather conditions in the late 1900s meant crop failures for the farmers, and, because of Jim Crow, black farmers couldn’t get the government assistance they needed to weather the economic and literal storm. When the Great Depression hit in the late 1920s and ’30s, black business owners faced extraordinary hardship for similar reasons, and it was “game over for most of these places,” explains Bouie, as many people left the all-black towns for bigger cities like Tulsa and Oklahoma City, once again in search of a better life.
By the 1950s, just 20 of the black towns remained; today, 13. Boley is the largest of them, with an estimated 1,183 residents, and the others have a few hundred residents apiece, mostly older folks, says Bouie, who spoke with a few people in each town he visited: fire chiefs, pastors, people standing near him on the sidewalk.
Bouie sees his photographs of these towns as his contribution, however large or small, to public awareness of them, the people, their history. He sees it as nothing more.
“My conception of myself and what I’m doing [with these photos] is not nearly grand enough to think that I’m preserving this in any sense,” says Bouie, who is also working on an essay about his Oklahoma trip for the Times. He wants people to look at the photograph of Pearlie’s gravestone in Lima, Oklahoma, and see that she died rather young, that she was the wife of Edwards, and maybe think about who Pearlie was and what her life would have been like.
He wants people to look at the photo of Lima’s Rosenwald School, and understand that in the middle of Oklahoma, people once built, with their own hands, a beautiful school in which to educate their children, in a town that they themselves created with the hope of building a better, more prosperous life for themselves and their children. He wants people to think about what it means that the structures he’s photographed are still standing, and that people still live in these towns.
Bouie says that in this way, his photography is not necessarily unlike his writing: he approached this exhibition much as he approaches his New York Times opinion pieces, as works of “considered perspective.” In “Simply: The Black Towns,” he says he is “clearly an observer” offering his own perspective on these towns, a perspective that he says the viewer “should not necessarily take as the perspective on these places.”
Photography teacher Akey still follows (via Instagram) Bouie’s lens, its view encompassing more than the black towns of Oklahoma, and including the built landscapes of Charlottesville, Richmond, Asheville, Seattle, and elsewhere. Akey says of Bouie’s overall body of work: “I think his gaze—and that of his camera—is often very loving and lingering while not giving in to the dark mysticism of Southern landscapes wholesale. I think Southern artists’ relationships to our heritage, land, and mythology is ripe for this kind of change, a change that is evident in Jamelle’s work.”
In hanging the exhibition, Douglas and Bouie chose to present the photographs unframed. Together, the pictures “tell a really meaningful and poignant story,” says Douglas, one that should not be glazed over by frame glass, or anything else. The photos present “a discourse about African American space, a discourse about the past, and what remains,” she adds. “You want that feel to be unobstructed.”
In tracking down this history, these places, says Douglas, Bouie “causes us to understand what it means to reclaim an African American story, the importance and the implication of that work in this moment,” in creating for everyone “a more complete narrative.” And, she adds, this is just the beginning for him as a photographer.
Bouie chose to tell a simplified version of the history on the exhibition tag that introduces the show, and has labeled each photograph with a concise marker of what we’re looking at: “A now-defunct general store for Boley,” or “A resident of Tatums rides his bike down one of the pathways leading to the highway.”
He gives bits and pieces of the history, perhaps so that the viewer can practice seeing what was, and what is. And maybe in that process, they too will get something stuck in their craw.
The exhibition is a different way of presenting the themes Bouie explores in his writing, Douglas says, “this sort of interesting, nuanced, American narrative. And [he is] trying to bring ideas to the [forefront], and a perspective that is not mainstream. And so these places are not mainstream places. They’re off the beaten path. And in some ways, their survival is heroic.”
The story Bouie tells with “Simply: The Black Towns,” with his careful attention to those landscapes, is a “testament to the hope people brought to this, and the story of how these places declined, which is an economic story,” he says. “But also, it’s a story about racism, which says something about the difficulty of trying to build a stable life for oneself in a racist society when you ultimately cannot really escape that.”
That is a story, he says, that’s “extremely American.”