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Camera captures texture of small-town black life

Wednesday, March 21, 2001

By Rebecca Sodergren, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Tucked into a larger region known for beaches and tourism, several small African-American towns around Cape May County, N.J., were in danger of losing their sense of history -- until Wendel White came along.

Why the neglect of these communities? White ticks off the possible reasons: They're African-American; they're small towns rather than higher-profile metropolitan areas; they're on back roads; most are residential and don't have tourist-attracting shopping areas.

But these towns contained plenty of attractions for White, an African-American photographer who has devoted the last 12 years to making sure that their history is not lost.

 
 
An exhibit of utilitarian vessels by Nicholas Joerling is located in Manchester Craftsmen's Guild's second art gallery, also through April 6.

Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and by appointment on Saturdays or in the evenings.

For information: 412-322-1773.

   
 

Twenty documentary photographs from his larger project, "Small Towns, Black Lives," are being exhibited through April 6 in the gallery of Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, North Side. More photos can be seen on White's Web site, http://www.blacktowns.org/.

A friend who teaches with White at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in Pomona first suggested that White photograph one small black town where she had spent childhood summers with relatives.

Little realizing what he was getting himself into, White walked around that community and talked to people one day, snapping photos as he went. A dozen years and as many communities later, White has 50 exhibit-ready photos with accompanying text and several hundred more in the editing stages. When he started, he saw this as a photographic project only, deciding later to add text, archival materials and old photographs.

Despite his use of historical artifacts, though, White is careful to note that he's not a historian.

"I don't follow a historical method -- I don't feel an obligation to thoroughness," he said, noting that he still allows himself artistic license by photographing only things that elicit a personal response in him.

What he ended up with is an eclectic look at small-town black life.

He has made portraits of many people in these communities, which all are within an hour of each other. He has spent hours with his subjects, getting to know the stories behind the faces. He speaks admiringly of several of these people: Woodie Armstrong, who set up a barbershop in Whitesboro, N.J., when he retired in 1958, then proceeded to run it for more than 30 years as he lived into his 90s; Pleasant Harrison, who worked as a nurse and traditional healer and built her own home in Whitesboro, amassing a vast collection of African-American art and antiques until her house burned about two years ago; and Audrey Lackey, the only black real estate broker in Cape May County when White photographed her in 1988.

Now he takes more than his camera along. He tapes interviews, takes notes and even videotapes people.

But he doesn't focus only on people. In fact, one of the towns, Port Republic, no longer exists. He photographed the remains of the town -- headstones.

Drawing on a natural interest in capturing places, White puts special effort into his landscape and architecture shots. One photo included in the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild exhibit shows Tiffany's Greens, Beans and Birds, a new Whitesboro restaurant that has attracted an outside -- and largely white -- clientele through its bright, airy atmosphere, even though the restaurant specializes in Southern black cooking. Another shot shows a tiny, boxy, one-story house in Whitesboro, accompanied by the ironic text of a 1930s real estate brochure: "A Great Future for Whitesboro, N.J. Progressive Whitesboro, Industrial Whitesboro, an Educational Center, a Haven for the Negro. ..."

Another "place" shot shows an antique organ crammed next to file cabinets in a corner of an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in Chesilhurst, N.J. White often started his exploration of a town by contacting the local AME church. This gave him not only a contact within the community but also links to other communities -- several pastors were or had previously been itinerant preachers, rotating their preaching schedules in several towns.

White has also attended community events, such as Whitesboro's first community reunion. He got several colorful shots, including men grilling meat with smoke rising from the grills, and another shot of three girls looking vaguely bored, waiting for activities to begin. But he also made himself visible that day, wandering with camera in hand and meeting people. As they become familiar with him and his project, they called him with tips.

He has been continually surprised by people's openness to his project. One time, he stopped his car along the side of the freeway while he photographed the lone remaining headstone of one of the communities' early settlers. The rest of the cemetery had been relocated when the freeway was built, but this grave remained. Suddenly, a police car pulled up, and the officer demanded to know what White was doing because he wasn't supposed to park there. When White began explaining his project, the officer relaxed and even asked questions. As the officer left, he winked and said, "Well, just don't be here when I come back."

The project hasn't exactly put these towns on the map. They're still small, relatively unnoticed communities of mostly older people. But they're excited to have even one person taking an interest.

"For most of them, their history has been so ignored that they're happy to let me into their homes and talk with me for hours."



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