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Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

DORIS DERBY, aged 82


Born in the Bronx, her parents were Hubert Derby, an engineer, and Lucille Johnson. She had a very liberal education and upbringing.

Hubert was forced to change jobs frequently due to experiencing racial prejudice and eventually became a civil servant. He taught Doris gardening (which was a passion she kept for the rest of her life) and how to use a camera.

Lucille was extremely active in the early Civil Rights movement, as her mother, (Doris’ grandmother), Edith Delaney Johnson had started a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in her native Maine in the 1920s.

Lucille kept up her mother’s tradition and passed it onto her daughter, Doris, who became active at a young age, holding meetings with her friends.

Hubert was an Episcopalian, so Doris became involved in that church, but she so loved singing she also went to the Baptist church attended by two of her closest friends, so that she could sing in the choir.

Therefore, Sundays were very full. At Sunday School, Doris discovered the arts, developing an interest in African and Caribbean culture. She also loved to dance.

But her father Hubert died whilst Doris was still a teenager.

She went to Hunter College in Manhattan, where she joined the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC). They paid for her to visit Nigeria on a fact-finding mission. The poverty she saw there made her determined, upon her return, to do her bit to ensure there was not such levels of poverty amongst the black communities of the USA.

Picture of the young Doris (courtesy Art Papers)

She graduated in 1962 and became a teacher.

By 1963, she was fully involved in the Civil Rights movement and took part in the March on Washington.

Then she visited a friend in Mississippi. She was appalled by the conditions she saw there amongst the black community. Additionally, Mississippi was the very centre of white supremacy, being the base of the Ku Klux Klan. Racism was open and everywhere.

Mississippi KKK (courtesy The Atlantic)

So, Doris decided to move to Mississippi.

Believing that the arts were a positive way of promoting change, she co-founded the Free Southern Theatre, based at Tougaloo College in Madison County.

And she took up her camera in order to record the poverty and the struggle she saw all around her.

She travelled around the state, capturing the experience of people’s lives. She went into the fields where they worked, the shacks where they lived, and recorded a way of life that most of the USA didn’t know still existed. “They were looking to find some help, some way to get out of their horrible poverty and despair.”

It wasn’t just misery that Doris recorded, but moments of pleasure and joy, including people’s responses to seeing the theatre for the first time and listening to Civil Rights speakers such as Stokely Carmichael.

She photographed children in both urban and rural settings and recorded elections where black people had been allowed to vote for the very first time. One of the people she photographed in an election campaign was a young Alice Walker.

One of her most famous photographs was of a nurse and doctor working at Tufts-Delta Clinic in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, where they were providing health care to black children for the very first time.

In an effort to spread her message further, Doris joined ‘Southern Media’, a collective based in Jackson, and became their press co-ordinator at the National Democratic Convention in Chicago.

Southern Media also provided support for the few black candidates in elections. Doris was pro-active in supporting Charles Evers as he successfully became Mayor of Fayette, the first African- American Mayor in the state of Mississippi.

But photographing the progress of the Civil Rights movement could be a highly dangerous affair, and she was ever on her guard.

On one occasion, Doris was driving past a rural church hall which was hosting a preschool programme for black children. She noticed a burning fuse leading to the church entrance. She stopped her car and managed to extinguish the fuse before the church was set alight.

Another famous photograph she took was entitled ‘Children with a White Doll’. It showed a group of black children playing with a white doll – because those were the only ones that were manufactured. It led to the creation of a handicraft co-operative called ‘Liberty House’ being set up to make black dolls. Doris did marketing work for them.

Children with a White Doll (courtesy Guardian)

She went to the Woodstock Festival in 1969 with her camera and some black dolls. They were in such high demand that Doris spent the whole festival working at the Liberty Hall stall. She never heard any of the music and she took no photographs of the famous festival.

In 1972, Doris was invited to the University of Illinois to take her master’s degree in Social Anthropolgy, specialising in African-American studies, and so she left Mississippi after 9 years, although she continued to support causes there. She went on to get her PhD.

She was a regular visitor to West Africa and tried to link the black Southern American culture with that of Africa.

She also began to lecture at the University of Illinois and later took up further posts in universities in Wisconsin and then South Carolina.

Finally, in 1990, she was made director of African – American studies at Georgia State University, where she stayed until she retired in 2012.

In 1995 she married actor Robert Banks and adopted his two children, Daniel and Lisa.

Upon retirement she continued to work with great energy in projects that promoted equality. In 2021, Doris published a book of her photographs which chronicled her experiences in the Deep South entitled, ‘A Civil Rights Journey’.

She explained, “I knew that we did not have our history in history books, and I knew that we had a lot of achievements. I wanted to make sure that I recorded whatever I could, whatever was historical and happening around me.”

In 2021, she was devastated  by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis by the white policeman Derek Chauvin. She said it showed how much work still had to be done. She said her phone never stopped ringing with people wanting to discuss the murder – and asking what they should do about it.

When asked why she took these photographs, Doris said, “If people were being so brave, it was the least I could do.”

RIP – Racism Inspired Photographs

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