5 Star Stories Black History Month: African American culture through the lens of Dr. Ernest C. Withers

Updated: Feb. 2, 2021 at 9:49 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Memphis’ iconic “Withers Collection Museum and Gallery” showcases the stunning photographic works of Dr. Ernest C. Withers.

Located at 333 Beale Street, The Withers Collection Museum and Gallery is 7,000-square-feet of Memphis and American history, the brainchild of Withers’ daughter, Rosalind.

“My father, Ernest Withers, Dr. Ernest Withers, was a photojournalist,” she smiled.

Rosalind says her father’s life was dedicated to capturing the moment and with that, he recorded history.

“Some of the history is painful and some of it is so beautiful,” said Withers. “It really reveals a culture and a life of a race of people.”

His 1.8 million images cover nearly 70 years of African American culture, mostly in Memphis, from the 1940s until he passed in 2007.

“1.8 million images is the low-ball estimate,” chuckled Connor Scanlon, the research and licensing specialist over the museum’s digital database.

Scanlon revels at the math, imagining one person amassing such a vast collection of priceless photos and how many shots he had to shoot in one day.

The earliest part of the collection was Sports.

“He was shooting a lot at Martin Stadium here in Memphis, one of the few baseball stadiums actually owned by a Negro League team,” Scanlon explained.

A marker is located on Crump Boulevard telling the story of Martin Stadium where Withers took photographs of baseball great Jackie Robinson and the late Country Singer Charlie Pride who both started in The Negro Leagues.

That part of the collection is now in demand, after Major League Baseball announced in December it’s elevating the Negro Leagues to Major League status. With that, researchers are now turning to the prints, digital images and negatives to match faces with names.

Another collection is the Lifestyle catalog.

“The biggest section of the archive is actually Lifestyle, which is just local Memphians at weddings, proms, funerals, walking up and down the street here, which I think is so important,” Scanlon pointed out.

They welcome any locals who might help identify themselves in the photos or someone they know in their everyday-people images.

Another collection: Music. Withers was the official Stax Records photographer.

“Musicians based here in Memphis that were largely through Stax, like David Porter and Isaac Hayes and also you know Aretha Franklin grew up here and Sam Cook,” Scanlon explained.

In fact, Aretha and Sam allowed Withers to catch a photo of them holding hands.

Perhaps, the museum is most known for its Civil Rights collection. One photo shows Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior in the middle of a march before his assassination. You’ll find tense, yet artistic images of the “I Am a Man” sanitation worker strike.

The pandemic may have closed the museum for now, but the images transcend brick and mortar. They now have that history available virtually.

“We don’t have to go to offices anymore. A lot of us are working at home and will continue to do so. So, video plays a major role in this transition,” said Chuck O’Bannon, the narrator, producer and director of the museum’s new virtual tour.

The “Pictures Tell the Story” virtual museum tour shows everything from the integration of Little Rock schools to horrific images of Emmett Till’s body and his mother’s anguish after he was accused of offending a white woman.

There are also the lesser-known incidents like Tent City.

“Tent City happened here in Memphis after white people created a blacklist of African Americans and got them evicted from their land,” Scanlon explained.

Scanlon wrote the narrative for the virtual tour, which explains how those who voted or informed others of their rights were put on this blacklist. A part of the virtual tour reads: “Shepard Towles, a farmer who owned his own land, decided not to plant his crops that year, and instead allowed families to set up tents on his property.”

In addition to what you’d see during an in-person tour, you’ll hear commentaries of personal experiences and opinions on top of the historical facts.

“We live in a time right now, in this generation, in this decade, where the truth is coming out strongly. We don’t sugarcoat anything,” added O’Bannon. “It’s graphic. It’s direct, there are segments that are in your face. But most importantly, it’s the truth and it’ll do you good.”

Last year, the museum used a grant to digitize a swath of the civil rights collection and released a book, “Revolution in Black and White: Photographs of the Civil Rights Era by Ernest Withers.”

“The first book that we published since the death of my father and it had about 70% of it or never seen before,” said Rosalind.

Before computers, Withers had meticulously written descriptions on unsealed envelopes with images inside, but the digital shift is painstaking with only about one percent of the images converted.

“Putting the negative or the print, whichever it is, on the scanner and scanning it. Another big part of the process is capturing the metadata that he wrote on the envelopes, names, dates, locations, places,” said Scanlon.

The museum is working hard to find the resources needed to properly house the deteriorating archives.

“Getting those negatives and prints in a place where they’ll be preserved for future generations in case anyone needs to go back and make another scan or if someone makes wants to make a really nice like silver gelatin fine art print,” Scanlon added.

Rosalind says the collection fills a void in an educational system that does not provide the full history of the African American experience.

“Having this pictorial, now digital content, to be able to teach from is amazing,” she said. “We are that record, we are that magnitude of pictorial moments in time where we are able to capture and share that history.”

Rosalind says we repeat our mistakes when we do not know our history.

O’Bannon says the collection is important for all to see.

“If there are injustices that they are guilty of over generations, they’ll be able to see it for themselves by looking at themselves through the eyes of Ernest Withers lens throughout history,” said O’Bannon.

You can donate to the fund to digitize the collection by clicking this link.

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