Trouble and Resilience: New photo exhibit captures the complex history of race and culture in Columbus

COLUMBUS, Miss. (WCBI) – Thursday, the Columbus Arts Council debuted its new exhibit, “Mr. Pruitt’s Possum Town: Photographing Trouble and Resilience in the American South.”

The collection of images is meant to reflect the cultural issues like family, race and religion in Columbus from the 1920s to the 1950s.

“This is part of our history and maybe it will give us some insight never to go down that dark road,” says Lowndes County Supervisor Leroy Brooks. “Let’s look at those things that brought us together. And let’s build on that.”

While they may have been taken before his time, Brooks says that plenty of the pictures depicting Columbus between 1915 and 1960 are extensions of what he has seen growing up.

“I’m reminded somewhat of a segregated Columbus and Lowndes County,” he says. “And I’m also reminded of the relationship that is somewhat unique in the South, that a lot of people don’t understand, between black and white people.”

The images on display are a sampling of the life’s work of photographer O.N. Pruitt.

“He was a white photographer, which allowed him to move obviously, in the white world, but also in the black world as well,” says Columbus native and media history professor Berkley Hudson.

Pruitt was one of the few photographers that would take pictures of African Americans and their families at his Columbus studio during the Jim Crow era.

“He was just unflinching in his eye,” Hudson says. “And in many respects, in the studio in terms of black subjects or white subjects, all were equal before the lens. Of course, out in the streets, and in the neighborhoods, racial segregation was at play.”

The project is the result of decades of work by Hudson. He says that Pruitt’s work as a freelance photographer for the newspaper, lawyers, insurance companies, and local law enforcement, allowed him to capture the complex nature of race and culture in Mississippi.

“(Interracial) baptisms, people meeting on the common ground of their love for Jesus Christ at the same time when people were lynching others, white people were lynching others in the name of Jesus Christ as well,” Hudson says.

The purpose of the exhibit is to simply give the people of present-day Columbus the chance to take a long look back at their city’s past.

“You start to wonder, ‘Who is this in this picture? Who is this woman here? Who are these black people in the beauty shop? Who’s this woman catching these fish?” Hudson says, pointing out some of the images.

The photos were first featured in Hudson’s book, “O.N. Pruitt’s Possum Town: Photographing Trouble and Resilience in the American South.” It features plenty of both.

“Here’s a picture here of Union Academy, which by the early 1900s had 1,000 students,” Hudson said, pointing out another photo. “It was the first school for freed enslaved people.”

“There are some pictures that will chill your soul,” Brooks says. “Young black men hanging in front of the courthouse or the movement of Ku Klux Klan.”

Brooks says many of the photos illustrate lessons that should never be forgotten.

“You hear people talking about the critical race theory and taking the teaching of black history out of the high schools,” he says. “And I think that where we are now is kind of a scary point. It’s almost like post-reconstruction.”

Hudson says he’s not interested in telling people what to think about these pictures.

He just hopes they stop and look.

“That’s the dynamic of our human existence,” he says. “Trouble and resilience. And Pruitt photographed that.”

The photos will remain on display at the Columbus Art Council gallery until April 23rd, when it will begin touring around the country.

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