Some are famous, like opera singer Jules Bledsoe and Navy hero Doris Miller. Others, like the laborers laying track for a rail line near the Waco Suspension Bridge or a streetside table of Camp Fire Girls, are largely anonymous.
Both known and unknown subjects, the majority from Waco, deepen the appreciation of black history in Waco and Texas in the photography exhibit “Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives: African-American Portraits,” on display Thursday through December at Baylor University’s Texas Collection.
The exhibition’s 28 black-and-white photographs, many enlarged to 36 by 30 inches, open windows into Waco black history in the first half of the 20th century, touching on institutions such as Paul Quinn College and A.J. Moore High School, community leaders and Baylor athletes.
They are drawn from 17 subcollections contained in the Texas Collection, with materials representing topics like New Hope Baptist Church, Waco photographers Fred Gildersleeve and Fred Marlar, and Waco pastor and City Councilman Marvin Griffin.
Texas Collection director John Wilson said the idea for the show had percolated for about five years, then finally took shape with the work of a committee that included Wilson, audio-visual curator Geoff Hunt, Baylor photography professor Michael Darough, Baylor librarian Ethel Walton and student Erin Gaddis.
With a wealth of images in those collections — “Geoff knows our photo collection better than anyone,” Wilson said — the team chose photos that touched on a variety of subjects. They also looked for images that told stories that could be encapsulated in captions of two to three sentences.
“When you have a story and an image to go with it, that’s kind of special,” he said.
The exhibit contains portraits of black Waco and Baylor pioneers, such as Oscar DuConge, Waco’s first black mayor; the Rev. Marvin Griffin, the first black Waco Independent School Board member; math professor Vivienne Malone-Mayes, Baylor’s first black professor; Waco dentist and Councilman Gary Radford; Tommy Bowman, Baylor’s first black basketball player and later a Baylor regent; and John Westbrook, the university’s first black football player.
A 1894 photo card shows the seven members of the graduating class of Flint Medical School in New Orleans, one of whom, George S. Conner, would practice medicine in Waco from 1895 to 1939.
Part of the exhibit highlights the career of Bledsoe, with display cabinets showing pictures of the singer costumed for his opera roles, playbills and posters advertising his concerts and material on Jessee’s Manna, Bledsoe’s 22-cabin vacation retreat in New York’s Catskill Mountains.
Other photos capture Paul Quinn College students in chemistry, art and orchestra classes as well as a packed banquet hall; the 1922 Paul Quinn state champion football team; the 1946 A.J. Moore High School football team; and workers asphalting a stretch of Fifth Street near downtown.
Several connect the career of Texas educator and state Rep. R.L. Smith, one of Bledsoe’s uncles, from a circa 1900 picture of female students at Smith’s Farmers Improvement Society College in Wolfe City to a group photo of FIS members that includes both Smith and his mentor, Booker T. Washington.
Miller, the Waco sailor whose actions during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 won him the Navy Cross, is represented in the exhibit with a picture of him speaking with the black graduates of the Naval Station Great Lakes in 1943, months before his death at sea, and a portrait of his parents, Connery and Henrietta Miller, on their front porch.
An opening reception for the exhibit will take place from 3 to 5 p.m. Thursday in the Texas Collection’s Guy B. Harrison Reading Room. Waco musician Classie Ballou will provide music.
Wilson hopes that “Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives” adds to the public awareness of the history of Waco’s black community as well as the extensive holdings of the Texas Collection.
“I hope people are enjoying it as much as I did putting it together,” he said.