Four black photographers with Kentucky roots were witness to history

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comFebruary 22, 2013 

In the early 1960s, Calvert McCann was a Lexington teenager who took his camera everywhere, including the protests against segregated stores and businesses downtown.

McCann is one of several Kentucky-born black photographers who have received national attention for their work.

McCann recalled in a recent interview that he caught a moment in December 1961, when musician Louis Armstrong came to Lexington to perform at a private party at the Phoenix Hotel. When Armstrong saw demonstrators protesting the hotel's discriminatory policies, he stood at the door of the bus, refusing to cross the picket line.

"I got a picture of him standing in the doorway of his bus, trying to make a decision whether to go in or not." said McCann, now 70 and living at Lexington's Bluegrass Care and Rehabilitation.

It was a good thing that McCann was at the Lexington protests with his camera, University of Kentucky associate professor of history Gerald Smith said.

"The Herald-Leader refused to provide complete coverage of the civil rights movement in downtown Lexington; but this history was preserved because Calvert McCann was there," said Smith.

"His photos document the determination and dignified efforts of civil rights activists on a grassroots level. His photos also provide overwhelming evidence of Lexington's historic connection to the hardened racism and segregation that permeated the rest of the nation."

McCann said his negatives sat for more than 40 years at his mother's house in Lexington. Smith found out about McCann's photographs more than 10 years ago while working on his book titled Black America Series: Lexington, Kentucky.

In the Armstrong incident, demonstrators disbanded their line for Armstrong because they didn't want him to be sued for breaking a contract, according to Smith's book, which includes several McCann photographs.

McCann remembered that Armstrong "wasn't aware of the discriminatory policy of the (Phoenix) hotel. He said if he had known he would have not come here."

"I was just a teenager at the time," McCann said. "They had these marches downtown and I participated in them and I took my camera and started taking pictures. I remember the children who came. They were all dressed up in their Sunday best."

McCann traveled and marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and photographed King as he headed the march on Frankfort in 1964. McCann photographed protesters on stools at segregated lunch counters. Once, McCann said, he was arrested during a protest.

After college, McCann joined the Peace Corps and kept taking photographs. Many of his jobs after that involved social work and helping young people, he said.

McCann said he moved to the nursing home more than a year ago after he had surgery to remove a benign brain tumor.

McCann said that after a 2004 Herald-Leader article appeared, along with the newspaper's apology for not covering the civil rights movement, he received inquiries from all over the United States and from foreign countries.

McCann said he never thought his work would receive accolades.

"I just like taking pictures," he said.

Photographers and twin brothers Marvin and Morgan Smith were born to a Jessamine County sharecropping family in 1910. They went on to photograph famous and ordinary people in New York City's Harlem.

Morgan died in 1993 and Marvin was buried in Lexington's Cove Haven Cemetery in 2003, according to Herald-Leader archives.

The Smith brothers, who attended the segregated Paul Laurence Dunbar School in Lexington, went to New York in the 1930s to escape racism and, according to Herald-Leader archives, seek better opportunities for themselves as photographers and artists.

UK professor Gerald Smith, (no relation to the brothers), said their photographs "offer a window to the rich, vibrant and diverse lives of famous African-Americans in Harlem. They were talented and fortunate to capture both private and public images of African-Americans from many walks of life."

During the 1940s, '50s and '60s, the Smiths photographed writers including Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Zora Neale Hurston; performers including Billie Holiday, Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington, Nat "King" Cole, Ethel Waters, Lena Horne and Sidney Poitier; sports figures Joe Louis and Satchel Paige, and various civil rights activists, according to the Herald-Leader archives.

The Smiths worked so closely together that they claimed they didn't remember which one took which picture.

Filmmaker Heather Lyons, the director of Lexington's Living Arts and Science Center, was the producer of a documentary on the Smith brothers that aired in the 1990s on PBS.

Called M&M Smith: For Posterity's Sake, it was narrated by Ruby Dee.

Lyons, in an interview last week, said the brothers "gave opportunities to so many actors, African-American models by providing them with film that they could show people, still photographs that they could take around. ...They really provided them a leg up."

Lyons said the men kept the home they grew up in on Lexington's Roosevelt Boulevard until they were in their 80s and came back to Lexington at least twice a year. They remained good friends with the people they went to school with. Lyons said that although she did not know of any photographs they took around Lexington, they took VHS tape of the countryside where they grew up in Nicholasville, which she included in her film.

Chester Higgins Jr., a photographer for the New York Times and the author of six books, said in a recent interview that he included a portrait of Marvin Smith in his book Elder Grace, which according to Higgins' website featured blacks "who have attained the seasoned dignity and grace that only older age can impart."

Higgins himself was born in Lexington in 1946. He said his mother had moved from Lexington to Alabama by the time he was about six months old.

Higgins said he didn't mention to Marvin Smith that he was born in Lexington: "I knew they were born in Kentucky, but since I was raised in Alabama ... and my hold on Kentucky is very tenuous, I didn't feel that I had any sort of bragging rights to bring it up."

However, when a reporter told Higgins he was included in the University of Kentucky Libraries' database of Notable Kentucky African-Americans, Higgins said he was pleased Kentuckians had recognized him.

Higgins said that one reason he became a photographer was that during the '60s civil rights movement, too often media coverage did not show blacks as American citizens petitioning the government. Instead, he said, "What we saw through the eyes of a cameraman were people who looked like they were thugs or potential rapists and arsonists and that made me realize how powerful the image is. But it also made me realize what is missing in the images of our people."

Higgins said his role has been "to try to always show the decency, dignity and virtuous character and the most important thing is not to sacrifice the dignity of the person" because of their condition in life.

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: (859) 230-5209. Twitter: @vhspears

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