Here’s a blog for photographers and/or music people. That’s me – a photographer and/or a music person.
On a recent failed attempt to photograph the candlelight vigil at Graceland on the 36th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death – who knew the candlelight vigil happened the night before the anniversary – I wound up my night on Beale St. For me, that’s not a drinking and partying night but a photo op night.
The busiest blocks of Beale St., beginning at B.B. King’s and stretching several blocks, are cordoned off and heavily policed these days. You don’t get on Beale St. without passing the inspection and possible frisking of half a dozen Memphis policemen. I passed.
Down at the lower end of the cordoned off section of Beale St., past the acrobats, bar bands, street performers, beer, barbeque, and revelers, I saw a quiet gallery of B&W photos. I went in, gave a donation, and saw the Withers Collection, an amazing gallery of photos by African American photographer Ernest C. Withers that covers 60 years of the civil rights movement, Memphis music, the Negro baseball leagues, Beale Street, Memphis history and politics plus African-American social life.
Withers was an Army trained freelance photographer who traveled with Martin Luther King and also covered the Emmett Till murder trial and other major events in civil rights history. His B&W photos of the segregated South of the 50s and 60s were published by many national newspapers and magazines.
I spent a lot of time trying to find out what camera Withers used. I finally found an image of Withers standing next to his 1950 Ford “Woodie” holding a 4x5 Speed Graphic with a flash attached. As suspected, Withers wasn’t of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Leica school but of the newsman’s 4x5 “F/8 and be there” school – shoot with a wide depth of field by flooding every corner of the scene with a flashbulb the size of a lightbulb. All or most of the Withers images I saw had a wide depth of field and were shot with flash.
Many of Withers’ images were familiar to me. He and his camera were there when history was being made and there are over a million images in his collection. The Withers Collection on Beale St. is a worthwhile stop for history buffs and photographers.
Ironically, in 2013, several years after Withers’ death, the FBI confirmed a suspicion that Withers had been a paid informant from 1952 to 1978, reporting on civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King.
Who knows what information Withers divulged and why. As a freelance photographer who accumulated over a million images in the days of expensive film and processing, Withers, especially in his early photography days, may have been playing the FBI for film and flashbulb money.
Big newspapers, then and now, tried to get photos from local photographers for little or nothing. Withers would sell photos to a Chicago newspaper, for instance, but retain the rights to sell the photos to other publications after a period of time. Since you can’t tell the pictorial story of the civil rights era well without at least a few of Withers’ images, the photos must be very valuable now.
In the middle of all the civil rights photos, I saw a photo of a young African American baseball player winding up on the pitcher’s mound. I recognized him from a distance. It was Charley Pride before he left baseball for the army and later a Country Music recording career.
Charley played for the Memphis Red Sox from 1953 to 1958 except for a break in 1954 when he was with the Birmingham Black Barons.
An unconfirmed story says the struggling Memphis Red Sox traded Charley and another player for a team bus. The army interrupted Charley’s baseball career and his Country Music career started with Snakes Crawl at Night in 1966.
When I asked one of the Withers Collection employees about Withers’ history, I also said, by the way, you should know Charley Pride’s name is spelled wrong under his photo. It is spelled Charlie but should be Charley.
The employee looked doubtful so I said I was a friend of Charley’s and that’s the way he spells his name but, don’t take my word, look it up online. When Charley was born, his parents named him Charle - a name of German origin that means free. The name on the birth certificate was erroneously spelled Charley and the name and spelling stuck. The employee told me I needed to talk to Charley’s cousin who was in the gallery.
I was introduced to Clenora Hudson-Weems, Charley’s cousin, and we had a long conversation about Charley and many other subjects. Clenora is an interesting person and a great conversationalist. She told me she is part African American, and part American Indian (Creek). One online photo shows her in Indian braids and I can definitely see her resemblance to Charley.
Dr. Clenora Hudson-Weems is an author, lecturer, and is Professor of English at the University of Missouri in Columbia, MO. She coined the term Africana Womanism. She is quoted as saying, “Africana Womanism is a term I coined and defined in 1987 after nearly two years of publicly debating the importance of self-naming for Africana women.”
The term Africana Womanism has given birth to Clenora’s books and lectures and to a movement that helps African American women define themselves.
Clenora's pioneering work on Emmett Till include 4 Till books, videos, etc. and her 1988 Ford Doctoral Dissertation (University of Iowa) was the 1st to establish Till as a catalyst of the Civil Rights Movement.
Clenora, another lady from the Withers Collection, and I posed for a photo and I snapped the photo of Clenora that is attached to this blog with my camera still set for Beale St. night scenes. How unprofessional.
The next time you’re in Memphis, you should stop by the Withers Collection on Beale St.
You’ll see some great, historic B&W photos and you may get to meet a fascinating lady, Clenora Hudson-Weems.
And I’ll bet, by the time you get there, Charley Pride’s name will be spelled correctly.