I’m a big proponent of photography as a tool to help tell a family’s story. Those stories aren’t always the most glamorous or happy all the time. But what they are is true and inspiring. I also subscribe to the notion that there’s a certain power in imagery that lends itself to the prophetic.
Case in point, a few days ago, I was contacted by a lovely lady who needed some headshots. Although I don’t have a studio, I agreed to do the headshots in her home. That can be tricky because you often have to prepare for an environment you’re not accustomed to, making lemonade out of lemons whenever necessary. Note to self: Start packing a stash of black curtains. I was as prepared as I could be for a dim lighting situation. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was that the headshots would be used for such an astonishing story.
Sheila Walker, pictured above, was born in Arkansas, the home of the Elaine Massacre. If you have never heard of the Elaine Massacre, you’re not alone. Even though this September marks the 100th anniversary of the Elaine Massacre, many Arkansans are still learning about it for the first time themselves.
According to Mrs. Walker, “It was not in the history books. People in Arkansas didn’t know about it. It’s just…I would say in the last twenty years there was even something on it, besides what Ida B. Wells wrote and other people wrote. It was just buried in history. Buried. This is so much of our history-American history, that’s buried. ”
In September 1919, a group of black sharecroppers had a meeting in a church that resulted in one of the deadliest riots in history…all because they wanted to form a union for fair prices for their cotton and to own their own farms. When two white men, in a pursuit “to protect life and property”, were shot and killed in an altercation with guards at the church, posses from all around descended upon them, killing black men, women and children in order to thwart the “uprising”. The governor called upon 500 soldiers to help with the perceived threat of “the heavily armed negroes.”
In a matter of hours, 12 sharecroppers were rounded up and sentenced to death. This kicked off a series of events leading to the first intervention of the federal courts in the affairs of state courts, removing the protections that the state had in robbing citizens of due process based on the color of their skin.
“I believe in Dr. King. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? Love triumphs over hate.”
Mrs. Walker’s uncles, Albert and Milligan Giles, ages 15 and 19, were among those who were convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Fortunately, they were eventually cleared of all charges and released. But, not right away, and not without scars. Not only were they wrongfully imprisoned for years, but her younger uncle remained stripped of the right to vote following his release.
Years later, upon reading books about the event, Mrs. Walker decided to contact an author who in turn put her in touch with someone from the other side of the riot-a poet by the name of Mr. Chester Johnson. They along with Mr. David P. Solomon connected over history in a way that seems to have brought some healing to the trio.
When I asked her what did they hope to accomplish through the symposium, she said, “It’s about reconciliation…and what I’m going to be talking about is why I have forgiveness in my heart.”
Mrs. Walker is referring to the time when she told her friend Mr. Johnson that she forgave his grandfather for participating in the riot.
With great resolve, Mrs. Walker said, “I believe in Dr. King. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? Love triumphs over hate.”
Headshots are seemingly a basic kind of photo. The operative word here being ‘seemingly.’ But, I’m so grateful to have had this small part in helping her carry such a great message to others. This is not the face of someone embittered by the past. It’s someone who is intent on making the future a better place to be.
I can get behind that.
If you’d like to learn more about this piece of history, please see the following links:
Also, check out the upcoming documentary Bound By Blood in which Mrs. Walker’s daughter-in-law, Producer/Editor, Franziska Blome, Producer/Director Llewellyn Smith and Producer/Researcher Annie Stopford seek to unfold how the event continues to shape the lives of locals.