Pointing to the elegant photo portraits of beautiful women and carefree children at play, Wayne Wolford urged his Black History Month audience to take care of history.
As the most prominent leader in the black community in Warren County today, Wolford praised the artistic excellence and technical skill of the curators and restorers of scores of glass-plate photo negatives from late 19th and early 20th century life in McMinnville. He addressed an audience Feb. 13 in the community room of Magness Library, where digitally restored photos from the Brady-Hughes-Beasley Collection will be on display the next few weeks.
“There was a time,” the speaker said to light and guarded laughter, “that a [racially mixed] crowd like this was a no-no.”
“Once upon a time people like me were called Negro. Later we were called colored,” he remembered. “Then [singer] James Brown made it cool for us to be black. And then somebody came up with the term African-American.”
In distinction from the latter description, Wolford affirmed he is simply American, having grown up in St Louis and McMinnville.
Wolford referred to the struggles and hardships of racial segregation and bias in the Jim Crow South. The racial subordination traces back to the Civil War and earlier, when black slaves were sent off to fight the white man’s war but his military salary was paid to his owner. Throughout the war, Southern blacks were assigned to back-breaking tasks such as building bridges and fortifications and digging the graves of fallen soldiers.
On the subject of burials, he said, the Southern culture had a descending order of death. “The white people were buried on top of the hill or close to it,” Wolford noted. “The black folk had their graves down on the slopes or at the bottom. That’s just the way it was. When you’re brought up that way it’s hard to think in a different way.”
Recalling his relocation from St Louis to McMinnville and the cultural and mindset changes involved in that transition, Wolford commented, “I wasn’t used to going around to enter the back door or having to eat my hamburger outside [the establishment where it was bought].” But over time, norms and values evolved in the direction of a more inclusive, accepting and multicultural society. He pointed to the mixed-race children in the Magness Library audience.
“We say, this is a beautiful child,” the speaker continued. “There will be a day when he won’t be called black or white. We’ll be multicultural.”
Wolford and Brad Walker, Magness Library director and chief genealogist, joined in urging the audience to take care of recording personal and family history in written notes or electronic recordings. The stunning photos on the library auditorium walls would be much more meaningful to present and future generations if they had names, places, dates and events inscribed as part of their permanent record in history.