Photo Essay - African Descendants in New Orleans: A Visual History

Band of Postulants on Circular StairwayArthur P. Bedou, Band of Postulants on Circular Stairway, 717 Orleans Street, 1945. Archives of the Sisters of the Holy Family, New Orleans

Arthur P. Bedou (1882-1966), a native of New Orleans, was the formal portrait photographer for the Sisters of the Holy Family (SSF), the second oldest Catholic religious order for women of color in the United States. The SSF was established in New Orleans in 1842, and Bedou documented many of the institutions founded by the order, including St. Mary's Academy, Lafon Catholic Nursing Home and countless other missions.

Scene from a PlayArthur P. Bedou, St. Mary's Academy, Scene from a Play, St. Mary's Academy (founded and administered by the Sisters of the Holy Family), c. 1940s, Archives of the Sisters of the Holy Family, New Orleans. -Byrd/AASC

Bedou's career spanned more than sixty years. He was widely known for his distinctive portraits of jazz musicians, New Orleans families and members of Catholic, African American institutions throughout Louisiana. He was also the primary portrait photographer for Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, a historically Black, Catholic institution, from the early to mid-twentieth century. In addition, he produced a series of eloquent, Pictorialist landscapes that document rural Louisiana and Mississippi. Bedou is certainly best known for his introspective, widely-reproduced portraits of Booker T. Washington, serving as his personal photographer during Washington's tenure as President of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Bedou frequently photographed the leading educator, author and activist, and often traveled with him on fundraising tours. In addition to his photographic endeavors, Bedou was also one of the founders of the Peoples Industrial Life Insurance Company of Louisiana, established in New Orleans in 1910 by a distinguished group of businessmen and community leaders of African descent.

Duke Ellington and guests at Autocrat Club (with A.P. Tureaud, second row, standing, third from left)Arthur Bedou, Duke Ellington and guests at Autocrat Club (with A.P. Tureaud, second row, standing, third from left), New Orleans, 1935, Joseph A. Hardin Collection, Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, LA

The Autocrat Club has maintained a distinguished history of civic engagement as part of New Orleans's 7th Ward and Creole of color communities. Initially founded in 1909, it was later re-established in 1914. Bedou's photograph captures a Friday, July 19, 1935 visit to the Autocrat on St. Bernard Avenue by Ellington and members of his orchestra. Autocrat club members, led by master of ceremonies Dr. Joseph A. Hardin, presented a brief program with musical entertainment, by local musicians, to the visitors. A. P. Tureaud may be seen standing third from left, in the second row.

Chief Surgeon, performing surgery at Flint-Goodridge Hospital (Dillard Univertsity)Arthur P. Bedou, Dr. Rivers Frederick, Chief Surgeon, performing surgery at Flint-Goodridge Hospital (Dillard University), c. 1932, Amistad Research Center

Dr. Rivers Frederick (1874–1954), a well-known, Louisiana-born physician, was chief surgeon at Flint Medical College in New Orleans from 1904 through 1907, then at Sarah Goodridge Hospital in the same city. After the merging of both hospitals, he taught post-graduate courses at the newly-established Flint-Goodridge Hispital. Dr. Frederick had previously served as chief surgeon at a government hospital in Honduras from 1901 through 1904, and from 1913 through 1932 also worked as a surgeon for Southern Pacific Railroad. In addition to his work as surgeon, he served as an active member of the NAACP, served on a mayoral Advisory Committee on Race Relations in New Orleans, and advocated an improved healthcare system for African Americans. Dillard University, an historically African American institution, was formed in New Orleans in 1930 by the merging of Straight College and New Orleans University. Although primarily a liberal arts-focused institution, the university had also maintained a focus on teaching and nursing, and administered Flint-Goodridge Hospital. Flint-Goodridge, operated by Dillard until 1983, played a pivotal role in the training of African American physicians in the twentieth century. The hospital's establishment dates back to October 1896, when a group of African American women, known as The Phyllis Wheatley Club, formally established an institution that they initially named The Phyllis Wheatley Sanitarium and Training School for Negro Nurses.

Wedding, New Orleans, 1912Arthur P. Bedou, Wedding, New Orleans, 1912, Courtesy Elodie Chabert

Bedou's formal and carefully-crafted images of lavish wedding parties, stylish jazz musicians, educators, and graduating seniors, much like the work of Harlem Renaissance chronicler James Van Der Zee, eloquently countered fixed and static notions of African American identity. Bedou and Van der Zee's work reflected a much broader range of African American representation, and countered race-based stereotypical images found in mainstream advertisements, film and other media. Many of Bedou's works reveal the construction of African American middle class identities and, in the context of New Orleans, Creole of color (and largely Catholic) representations of African American identity. As photographer Harold Baquet noted in a 1991 interview with Charles H. Rowell, "We have an acknowledged photographic heritage here in New Orleans. There is Mr. Arthur Bedou. He took everyone's ‘baby photograph'. He documented the Creole community, New Orleans people of color. It was a big thing to have a Bedou portrait. It meant that you were a person of means. You had contracted a professional. That photo would be proudly displayed on the mantelpiece."1 1Charles H. Rowell, "An Interview with Harold Baquet," Callalloo, Vol. 14, No. 3, 673–681.

St. Augustine Church, 1973Frank Wyley, St. Augustine Church, 1973, Courtesy Benford Davis, Jr. and Deneen Tyler

Frank Wyley's St. Augustine Church of 1973 documents the historically-significant Tremé-based church established in 1842. St. Augustine was the first mixed-race congregation in New Orleans. Wyley's rendering, stylistically linked with Dufy's pre-Fauve imagery and Claude Monet's Impressionist renderings of Rouen Cathedral, is constructed using simple, outlined planes of nearly flat color. Wyley then bathed this historic edifice in eloquent, radiant light. Frank Wyley (1905–1978) was one of New Orleans's most intriguing artists, yet also one of its least-known. Working from his Ninth Ward home, he produced an impressive and eclectic body of paintings, prints and drawings over a period of nearly five decades. A self-taught artist who supported his family by working as a porter, Wyley never ventured further than Mississippi. His work, however, was exhibited in Atlanta and New York alongside that of Aaron Douglas, Hale Woodruff, Lois Mailou Jones, James Lesesne Wells, Hughie Lee-Smith, Ellis Wilson, James A. Porter and other prominent African American artists. Wyley lovingly rendered his New Orleans: a long-forgotten peddler of rags trundling through the City's streets on a rudimentary cart, an Impressionistic Sunday outing at the Lakefront, countless French Quarter courtyards and straight-backed women with children in tow. Wyley's works, tinged with the influences of Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse and Raoul Duty, evoke the distinctive beauty of the New Orleans cityscape. From the late 1930s through the 1950s, Wyley received critical acclaim and awards in various group exhibitions at the Texas Centennial Exposition's Hall of Negro Life and at national exhibitions of African American Art at Dillard University and Atlanta University. Several of these exhibitions were sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in conjunction with his New Deal legislation, efforts that supported numerous American artists from 1935–43. During the 1960s, Wyley continued exhibiting his works nationally. A 1974 appearance on ABC's The Reasoner Report, a nationally-syndicated television program, brought him increased attention, and in 1976, renowned artist and scholar Hale Woodruff noted Wyley's work in Black Art: An International Quarterly.

Louis ArmstrongElizabeth Catlett, Louis Armstrong, Armstrong Park, Tremé, New Orleans, 1976 Photo: Mora J. Beauchamp-Byrd

In 1976, Modernist artist Elizabeth Catlett was commissioned by the City of New Orleans to produce a large-scale sculpture of musician and New Orleans native Louis Armstrong near Congo Square in the Treme neighborhood (now Armstrong Park). In 2010, Catlett's massive, 10-foot sculpture of Mahalia Jackson, a commission by the City of New Orleans, was also unveiled in New Orleans' Armstrong Park in the Tremé neighborhood. Catlett maintained an enduring relationship with the city of New Orleans, beginning with her tenure as professor of Art and Chair of the Art Department at Dillard University in the early 1040s. Elizabeth Catlett's biographer and former student, Samella Lewis, has written about Catlett's tenure as head of the art department at Dillard University from 1940 to 1942. "For the Dillard students, Elizabeth Catlett was a commanding and fascinating individual… She stood up to everybody…Her immersion into civil rights movements, labor movements, and human rights in general was a threat to the status quo and an embarrassment to the conservative officials of the university, but she persisted until her departure in the spring of 1942…She confronted police on brutality, bus drivers on segregated seating, and college administrators on curriculum." Catlett's experiences with racist and sexist discrimination would result in a recurrence of socially-progressive themes in her work–themes that countered racial and ethnic stereotypes, interrogated singular notions of physical beauty, and celebrated the everyday and heroic role of African American women. Born in Washington, D.C., Catlett was primarily known as a sculptor and printmaker. Refined, sensual sculptures of wood, bronze and marble, as well as a prolific body of expressionistic, often politically-charged prints, have made her one of the most celebrated American artists. Her oeuvre reflects the influence of traditional West African sculpture, German Expressionist prints and sculpture, Pre-Columbian ceramic traditions, Mexican Muralist painting, the Cubist abstractions of Russian-born Modernist Ossip Zadkine, with whom she studied, and her tenure with the Taller de Grafica Popular, a Mexican printmaking collective begun in the 1940's which evolved from the nationalist trend resulting from the Mexican Muralist movement. During a career that spanned more than 70 years, Catlett has been featured in more than 60 solo exhibitions of her work, including retrospectives in 1993 and a 1998, 50-year sculpture retrospective organized by the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, NY in 1999. She resided largely in Mexico from 1946 until her passing at the age of 96 in 2012, and continued to produce art while dividing her time between New York City and Cuernavaca.

Opening the Gates: A Memorial to A.P. TureaudSheleen Jones, Opening the Gates: A Memorial to A.P. Tureaud (Alexander Pierre Tureaud, Sr.), A.P. Tureaud Civil Rights Memorial Park, New Orleans, 1996, cast bronze Photo: Courtesy Sheleen Jones

Sheleen Jones's Opening the Gates is a commissioned sculpture of civil rights activist and attorney A.P. Tureaud (1899–1972). Tureaud was the attorney for the New Orleans chapter of the NAACP, and worked with Thurgood Marshall to end Jim Crow segregation in New Orleans. Jones depicted Tureaud as opening the "gates of justice," and the work incorporates wrought-iron gates, a tribute to ironwork produced by enslaved Africans and free men of color in New Orleans, a critical component of the city's distinguished architectural traditions. Jones is a native of New Orleans. At Xavier University, she studied with Charles Graves, Lloyd Bennett, and renowned artist and MacArthur "Genius" grant award winner John T. Scott. Drawing from her experience as an athlete, Jones has often focused on long implied strength of figures at rest and in motion. Additionally, she often employs silhouettes to examine universal themes. She has long specialized in bronze, a medium that she has come to love for its durability and rich, illustrious color. After receiving a BFA from Xavier University in 1991 and an MFA from Florida State University in 1994, she taught at Southern University at New Orleans for two years. Since 1994, she has been serving the Orleans Public School System as a "Talented Art" teacher. Returning from a Hurricane Katrina-induced exile, she transferred her teaching service to the Orleans Recovery School District, where she continues to inspire young talents.

Spirit HouseJohn T. Scott and Martin Payton, Spirit House, 2002. Photos: Mora J. Beauchamp-Byrd

John T. Scott and Martin Payton's Spirit House is a massive public art sculpture located at DeSaix Circle in the Gentilly area of New Orleans. A striking, monumental aluminum structure reaching a height of nineteen feet, Spirit House evokes both a soaring cathedral and the vernacular, everyday quality of the shotgun house. Commissioned by the Percent for Art Program of the City of New Orleans, Spirit House is a complex series of silhouetted forms in a style that is highly reminiscent of Haitian metal cut-out sculpture. These silhouetted figures represent an encyclopedic catalogue of iconographic references: a Chi Wara antelope head of the Bamana of Mali, a symbol of the sankofa bird with its head craned backwards, a symbol for the Akan of Ghana that represents a reverence for history, and the shotgun house with its Afro-Caribbean roots and historical relevance in the city of New Orleans. Also included are silhouettes of jazz musicians, ancient Egyptian pictorial symbols, church choirs, poetic inscriptions, masquerading figures, animal forms, and an industrious series of laborers at work: carpenters, ironworkers, bricklayers and others. In an April 2002 article in the New Orleans-based Times-Picayune, Scott is quoted as stating that the work's silhouetted forms relate the narrative of the "unnamed, unknown, African American bricklayers, iron workers, fruit vendors, domestics and teachers who built this city." John T. Scott (1940–2007) was born in New Orleans in 1940 and earned a B.A. from Xavier University in 1962. He received an M.F.A. from Michigan State University in 1965, and served as a Professor of Fine Art at Xavier for forty years. He is best known for vibrantly colored, multi-layered prints and fluid kinetic sculptures fashioned from industrial metal rods, whisper-thin wires and a complex system of weights and counter-weights. Scott's work ranges from sophisticated, eloquent kinetic sculptures influenced by the African diddley-bow to delicate line drawings of unparalleled draftsmanship. Diversity is perhaps the defining characteristic of his work. In 1992, he received a prestigious John D. McArthur Fellowship, commonly called the MacArthur "Genius" Grant. Martin Payton is widely recognized for sculptures that have been informed by traditional West African sculpture and dance, African-derived belief systems, ancient Egyptian and Abstract Expressionist art, and the kinetic sculptures of Alexander Calder, George Rickey and John T. Scott. Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, Mr. Payton received a B.F.A. from Xavier University in 1973 and an M.F.A. from Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles in 1975. In 1990, he began teaching at the Art Department at Southern University, where he later served as Associate Professor, then Chair. In 2009, he had a 2009 solo exhibition at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art called New Orleans Masters: Martin Payton. He is also included in Sculpture for New Orleans: Poydras Corridor, an exhibition of public art organized by Sculpture for New Orleans and The Ogden Museum of Southern Art.

Crescent Thoughts II (Gutted Soul)Augustus Jenkins, Jr., Crescent Thoughts II (Gutted Soul), 2007, linocut, Courtesy of the artist

Augustus Jenkins, Jr.'s Crescent Thoughts II and Winter Break are part of a series of linocut prints documenting the traumatic effects of Hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans in 2005. Above all, the series celebrates New Orleans's African American communities, whose resilience, survival strategies and reliance on enduring cultural traditions, have been a key component of rebuilding efforts.

Winter Break (Going Home after the Storm)Augustus Jenkins, Jr., Winter Break (Going Home after the Storm), 2007, Courtesy of the artist.

Augustus Jenkins, Jr. was born in New Orleans in 1980. He received a B.A. in Art from Xavier University of Louisiana, studying closely with John T. Scott, and holds an M.F. A. from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale in Illinois. He is an adjunct professor in the Department of Art at Xavier University. He has noted of his work, "What drives my work is a sense of history" that was "passed on to me in the form of stories that I heard while growing up in New Orleans. In these narratives, the lives of everyday people who worked, struggled, sacrificed, lived, built the city and shaped the community, were remembered and shared…I became interested in the power of storytelling, and began to use the narrative as a way of reflecting not only their experiences, but also my own."

Alison Sheleen Jones, Alison "Big Chief Tootie" Montana, 2010 (Armstrong Park, Tremé, New Orleans) Photo: Mora J. Beauchamp-Byrd

Sheleen Jones's commissioned sculpture of Big Chief "Tootie" Montana (1922–2005) celebrates a legendary icon of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian tradition that has endured for more than 120 years. The Mardi Gras Indians are African Americans who have annually paid tribute to Native American traditions by producing vibrant and colorful suits, comprised of beadwork and feathers, that reflect a rich, complex melding of Native American, African and Caribbean influences.

Untitled (Cemetery Scene)Epaul Julien, Untitled (Cemetery Scene), 2004 Silver gelatin print

New Orleans-based photographer Epaul Julien is a self-taught artist who began his career in 1995. Born in New Orleans, he grew up on Africa Plantation, then owned by his family, in the town of Modeste, Louisiana. Julien has produced a prolific body of evocative scenes—Louisiana musicians, cemetery scenes, architectural views and romanticized swamplands—that employ both traditional and innovative photographic processes. His lyrical constructions have also focused on city scenes, landscapes, and portraiture set in Haiti, Venice and other sites. As part of the artistic duo called E2 (with Elizabeth Kleinveld), he has also produced an engaging series of photographic works drawn from art historical appropriation. He has exhibited at the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Louisiana State Museum, Stella Jones Gallery, at Arps Gallery in Amsterdam and at other national and international venues.