“I had this old photograph of my mother, who died when I was younger,” explained Shawn D. Wilson, the writer/director of the new documentary film, “Separate, But Equal,” in a recent interview.
“It was the only photograph that I had of her. I lived in New York, but I decided to travel back to Mississippi and try to locate the photographer who had taken the photograph.”
After tracking down the photographer, whose name was Henry Clay Anderson, Wilson traveled to Greenville, Miss., to meet him. He discovered that, on top of the elegant portrait of his mother taken in 1965, Anderson had made a series of graceful black-and-white photographs of a strong, independent and apparently successful Black community in what was then a segregated Mississippi.
Anderson’s photos show that even in the mid-20th century, when Black lives were legally separated from the lives of their fellow white citizens, middle-class African-Americans constructed their own world of comfort and pleasure that made their communities strong.
“He had these really, really beautiful images of Black people in Mississippi during legal segregation that just totally blew me away,” Wilson recalled. “I had only been familiar with images of the poverty and the oppression and all the media coverage around the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, and what was happening around segregation. I’d never come across something that made me feel good about being from Mississippi or good about that era.
“But when I saw these photographs, it sort of ignited something in me to make the effort to pull out something that was good about that period–something that I could look back on and feel good about for myself and share with other people.”
In 1997, Wilson promised Anderson that he would help get a wider audience for his photographs. Anderson had been a recognized photographer for decades, known as the Black photographer in Greenville after establishing his “Anderson Photo Service” business there in 1948.
Anderson’s portraits and reminiscences of the everyday life of Greenville’s Black community portray them as dignified and purposeful, but national fame came to him with the publication of his photograph of the murdered Rev. George W. Lee. As the head of the Belzoni, Miss., branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Lee had been registering Black Mississippians to vote. When he was assassinated in May of 1955 (just months before the murder of Emmett Till), his wife held an open-coffin funeral and Anderson’s photo of the reverend’s mutilated body appeared in the nationally syndicated Ebony magazine.
By the time Wilson met Anderson in the late 1990s, he had retired as a photographer and felt that his life’s work had been completed. Wilson worked with Anderson to promote his photographs, reaching out to the photography collector, Charles Schwartz, to publish the book “Separate but Equal: The Mississippi Photographs of Henry Clay Anderson” (Public Affairs, 2002). The book’s publication did not come until after Anderson’s death, but Wilson has continued to press on. He presented the collection to the curators of the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, and they have acquired the works to be put on permanent display beginning in 2016.
Now, Wilson has used Anderson’s photos to serve as the basis for the story of Black life in segregated Mississippi. The producers of the documentary film project, “Separate, But Equal,” are still looking for donations to help complete the final editing of the film (those interested can see a trailer for the film and contribute at www.kickstarter.com/projects/1779791959/separate-but-equal-a-film-that-reshapes-southern-h). They are particularly interested in holding screenings of the film at schools and for groups interested in learning how African-Americans truly lived under segregation.