Many years ago, my friend Joey Brackner, the Executive Director, Alabama Center for Traditional Culture, found a collection of photographs at the Bessemer Flea Market. He donated them to the Birmingham Public Library, and they are now on display through September 14. Well, of course I *had* to see…of the 800+ images, they selected 40 prints for the exhibit — ‘Both Sides of the Lens: Photographs by the Shackelford Family, Fayette County, Alabama (1900-1935)‘.
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.”
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.”
It was hard to photograph these images well due to the amount of glass, and lighting on the 4th floor, but these were among the best: