We started this conversation with me asking if my father had been a “race man” (a precursor to Black Nationalism where Blacks valued and uplifted people of African descent and supported aggregation of the race. Race Men Carby is an interesting look at people she considers race men.) It was interesting how quickly the conversation turned to (Black) culture as a vehicle that supported, expanded, reflected and supported him. I found it interesting, too, how many people who are now African-American cultural icons, were a regular part of his life from young man to seasoned elder.
Were you a race man when you went to the University of Chicago?
Yeah, kind of. I say kind of, that was the only politics I had.
You mean you had the politics of your parents rather than your own politics?
No. My own politics was of course the politics of World War II. I was a World War II veteran. I did have my own. I had a deep objection to discrimination and they (his parents) didn’t express that at all. When I left I had to volunteer* real quick ( laughter)
Interesting word “volunteer”* (more laughter)
But at the time I was beginning to develop a set of politics. My mother was in the NAACP and she had put me in the NAACP. I left there to help deal with Philip Randolph and the March on Washington. I was a little teenager volunteer. Strange Fruit, Billie’s song was a big thing to me. My parents talked about it but I felt it, I think, much more intensely than they did.
When I went there I was a race man and I did that by going down to the Southside Community Art Center. I spent more time on the Southside when I was in college then I did on campus.
So when did you get into photography?
I hooked up with Jerry Cogwell (A Navy friend he met in Okinawa) when I went to Chicago. Jerry lived on the Southside, in the housing projects, and he had a little darkroom at the Southside Community Arts Center where he took pictures and what not.
The Southside Community Arts Center files were the center of Sinclair Drake and Horace R. Cayton’s Black Metropolis A lot of folks worked out there. That’s where Katherine Dunham worked out of. All the big black women, strong women in dance. I saw their rehearsals. And there was a guy Peter Green, Peter a gay dude, he hung around all the time. Big thighed African dancer Pearl Primus. She worked Peter to death. It was so funny. There was a big black club I think they called it the Regal. I took your mother to this club, like the Apollo, Black band and such. I’m watching these folks dancing and of course I’d seen all these rehearsals and suddenly I realized “That’s Peter.” Peter went on, I met him in New York.
The cultural center was a cooperative, it was a gallery; it was a lot of things. The woman who was the spiritual leader was Margaret Burroughs. She’s an old communist. I met her 20 years later in Cuba.
But that’s how I got into photography. It was Jerry. In 1948 Jerry stayed with us in Englewood. (By this time my grandparents and two uncles had left Harlem and moved to Englewood, New Jersey in a house my grandfather was able to buy by hitting the numbers.) And he said “Come on, I’m gonna introduce you to Gordon Parks.” And I said “Oh yeah, OK.” And Parks was in White Plains. We got on the bus, we scuffled, we got there. And we talked. Parks was a really pleasant guy and we talked photography. And then Parks said, “You guys want to work?” and we said, “Yeah sure, we’ll work.”
And he sent us to a dude named Richard Saunders. Richard Saunders was from Bermuda. He was one the first black skinned to get into serious fashion photography. The gig was shooting 52nd street and we were his assistants. We shot 52nd street itself. Running up and down. It was great!
Sadly the conversation turned and this tape ended after my father and I having a brief unrelated discussion about the food he had just cooked and served. It was, as all his cooking was, wonderful. My father did, however, seriously take up photography and shot babies, weddings, etc. while he attended the University of Chicago.
*My father was offered the choice to volunteer for the Navy of ace youth jail at the age of 17.