Doris Derby, African-American life photographer, dies at 82

Doris Derby, who was one of the few black women to chronicle the civil rights movement through photography, amassing an archive of thousands of images that reveal in poignant intimacy the lives of those for whom the movement was fought, died March 28 at a hospice center in Newnan, Ga. She was 82.

The cause was complications from cancer, said Charmaine Minniefield, an artist who described Dr Derby as a mentor.

Dr. Derby was teaching elementary school in New York in 1963 when she uprooted her life to join the civil rights movement in the South. She was forced to go there, she said, because of images she saw in the news of violent attacks on peaceful protesters.

“The police had German shepherd dogs and batons, and they were blasting people with fire hoses,” she told a publication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, her alma. mother graduate. “I said, ‘Oh my God, if people there can submit to these life-threatening actions, the least I can do is go to Mississippi and use my God-given talents.’ ”

These photos are a powerful reminder of the struggles of the civil rights movement, still relevant today

Dr. Derby traveled to Mississippi as field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, planning to dedicate a year of her life to the movement. In the end, she stayed for almost a decade. She registered African Americans to vote, taught adult literacy classes, and organized agricultural cooperatives to give black sharecroppers independence from white landowners. Along with several other activists, she founded a theater troupe that performed for free before a predominantly black audience.

During this work, she documented black life as a photographer with a project known as Southern Media.

“Her images stood in stark contrast to other civil rights images made at the time because she looked at segregation, despair, joy and family all at the same time – and used the stories that emphasized a feeling of hope,” Deborah Willis, professor of photography at New York University, where she is also director of the Center for Black Visual Culture/Institute of African American Affairs.

Dr. Derby had what she called a “broad” concept of civil rights, instilled in her by her parents and grandparents. His grandmother had been an early member of the NAACP. His father, an engineer by training but unable to find work in the field because he was black, had become a civil servant and fought against discrimination in government employment.

In his own activism, Dr. Derby sought to overturn not only formal laws that disenfranchised African Americans and empower them, but also ingrained social patterns that limited their educational, economic, and cultural opportunities.

She brought an equally broad vision to her civil rights photography. She documented the funerals of four girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and the funeral of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. after his assassination in 1968. She has also photographed sharecroppers working the land, seamstresses in a sewing cooperative, mothers taking care of their young and children attending to their childhood.

The subjects of his portraits included boxer Muhammad Ali, writer Alice Walker and activist Fannie Lou Hamer. They also included unsung activists who did the behind-the-scenes work that propelled large-scale change.

“I wanted to show who the people are, where they live and what they do. They were the basis of the success of the civil rights movement,” she told a University of Illinois interviewer. “Many activities and initiatives, including the formation of cooperatives, were part of this whole movement. Anything you did to challenge the status quo was considered political.

“Strangers often see those who are there protesting, meeting officials or scenes of a tragedy – all of which are very significant,” she continued. “But not everyone was outwardly involved in this part. My goal was to document black people who were engaged in the struggle for equality and justice for all. To portray the life-giving force of the black community that continues. Even if they face poverty and injustice, they survive, they live.

After being largely ignored for decades, Dr. Derby’s photographs have been exhibited in recent years at institutions such as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Gregory Harris, curator of photography at the High Museum, remarked in an interview that “as a black woman, her perspective is very unusual.” outside would normally not be able to get.

Doris Adelaide Derby was born in the Bronx on November 11, 1939. Her mother was a homemaker and later an educator at a school for deaf students. His father, in addition to his job in the civil service, supported his children as a cabinetmaker.

He was also an amateur photographer, Dr Derby recalls, and gave her a Kodak Brownie camera when she was in elementary school.

Both of Dr. Derby’s parents encouraged her interest in the arts, which led her to take lessons with Katherine Dunham, a renowned dancer and choreographer who helped introduce black cultural traditions into modern dance.

Dr. Derby was 16 when she joined the NAACP. She enrolled at Hunter College in New York, where she majored in elementary education and anthropology and traveled around Nigeria before graduating in 1962. She was working in Yonkers, NY, when rights activist Civics Bob Moses recruited her from SNCC.

“It was very dangerous, with bombings of houses and shootings,” she recalls. “There were mass arrests of local black men, women, and children, as well as white and black civil rights volunteers.”

Once during his stay in Mississippi, Dr. Derby walked past a church that housed a Head Start program for black preschoolers. She noticed a flame at the end of a wire leading to the church. She and the others in the car jumped out and extinguished the flame before what appeared to be an explosive device could detonate.

After a decade in the South, Dr. Derby enrolled at the University of Illinois, earning a master’s degree in 1975 and a doctorate in 1980, both in anthropology. She majored in African-American studies.

“As a young person growing up in New York City,” she said in an interview with the AlternateRoots website, “I saw my mission in life as one that would identify, document, associate and learn from artists, dancers, writers , black musicians, actors, poets and historians to collect information and disseminate it to our people in whatever form I could as it was sorely lacking in our community and not readily available in textbooks, magazines, newspapers, films or on the television.

She spent much of her college career at Georgia State University in Atlanta, where she headed the Office of African American Student Services and Programs.

Dr. Derby married Robert Banks in 1995. Besides her husband, of East Point, Georgia, survivors include a sister.

Last year Dr Derby published a book of his photographs, “A Civil Rights Journey”.

In one of her images, an African American woman in saddle shoes is shown hanging out laundry on a porch, the breeze almost visible in a billowing white sheet along the line.

Reflecting years later on the woman in the photo, Dr Derby remarked: “I would say she was happy that we were here to represent the fight for equality, the fight to… help her improve one’s lot in life.”

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