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Doris Derby obituary | Photography

The photograph of American civil rights activist and scholar Doris Derby, who died of cancer aged 82, began by documenting the struggles of black people in the segregated South. However, rather than recording the dramatic events and protests of the nine years following her arrival in Mississippi from New York in 1963, Doris chose to capture the daily human effort required to experience them.

She traveled to rural communities to witness children working in the fields and women living in wooden shacks trying to care for families. “They were looking for help, a way out of their horrible poverty and despair,” she said.

Nurse Ora Bouie and physician at Tufts-Delta Health Clinic Mound Bayou, Mississippi, 1968. Photography: Doris Derby

Among his photographic subjects were community audiences reacting to their first exposure to the theater and students listening to guest speakers such as Amiri Baraka and Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture).

Influenced by both German expressionist artist Käthe Kollwitz, who was interested in the effects of poverty, hunger and war on the working class, and by photographer Roy DeCarava, who captured the creativity of the Renaissance of Harlem, she also took pictures of children in urban settings. contexts, old and young people attending election events and people working for the movement, including author Alice Walker.

Doris’ 1968 photograph of nurse Ora Bouie and a physician at Tufts-Delta Health Clinic, Mound Bayou, Mississippi, captures the exhausting nature of a pioneering community health clinic. It provided support for black children for the first time, its existence protected by Mound Bayou having been founded as an all-black town.

Children With a White Doll, Farish Street, Jackson, Mississippi, 1968, is a typically sympathetic depiction of the complex world of childhood. The black children here are seen with a white doll: very few black children had black dolls, so one of the first products made in craft co-ops such as Liberty House, which Doris marketed for, was both masculine and feminine. black rag dolls.

Many non-black customers in retail stores also wanted to have black dolls. To promote them in 1969, Doris went to the famous Woodstock Festival, although setting up the Liberty House booth and selling the dolls left her barely aware of the music.

She had come to Mississippi as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Convinced that culture is a vital force for change, she quickly founded the Free Southern Theater with John O’Neal and Gilbert Moses, at Tougaloo College in Madison County.

Children With a White Doll, Farish Street, Jackson, Mississippi, 1968, is a typically sympathetic depiction of the complex world of childhood.
Children With a White Doll, Farish Street, Jackson, Mississippi, 1968, is a typically sympathetic depiction of the complex world of childhood. Photography: Doris Derby

In 1968, she also began assisting news photographers and filmmakers visiting the state by joining Southern Media, a community darkroom and offices in Jackson, its capital. That year, she was press coordinator at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, also taking photos. In a remarkable image, sharecropper activist and singer Fannie Lou Hamer walks past a group of white men, after speaking at the convention.

The darkroom produced posters for black election candidates such as Charles Evers, whose brother Medgar had been assassinated in 1963. Doris photographed Evers’ successful campaign in Fayette in 1969 to become the first African-American mayor in a multiracial municipality in Mississippi.

Danger followed participants in the civil rights movement. In a talk at the Photographers’ Gallery, London, in 2020, Doris described an occasion when she was walking past a rural church hall where a pre-school program for black children was taking place, when they spotted a burning fuse leading out of the entrance to the church. She jumped out of the car and ran to blow out the fuse before the church was set on fire, narrowly escaping disaster.

“Documentation was one of the things I was destined to do from a young age,” she told me when I worked with her on A Civil Rights Journey (2021), a collection of her images and a testimony of his experience in the south.

“I knew we didn’t have our history in the history books and I knew we had a lot of accomplishments. I wanted to make sure I recorded everything I could, everything that was historical and happening around of me.

This unbiased yet empathetic eye was possible thanks to Doris being both an outsider, born and raised in the Bronx, New York, with a liberal upbringing, and an insider, imbued with civil rights from an early age by her mother, Lucille (née Johnson). She encouraged Doris to hold meetings with other students; his own mother, Edith Delaney Johnson, had founded a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Bangor, Maine, in the 1920s.

Doris Derby.
Doris Derby speaking at the Photographers’ Gallery in London. Photograph: Mike O’Brien/Alamy

Doris’ father, Hubert Derby, was an engineer who later became a civil servant and was forced to change jobs several times due to discrimination. He taught her how to use a camera and maintain a home garden – skills that came in handy when she went south – but died when she was a teenager.

Since he was an Episcopalian, she was active in that church. But she also liked to sing in the choir at the Baptist church where her friends went, so she attended two services every Sunday. At school, she was drawn to the arts – especially dance – and any chance to study Africa and the Caribbean.

While at Hunter College in Manhattan, Doris joined SNCC and traveled to Nigeria. After graduating in 1962, she became a teacher and, after participating in the following year’s March on Washington, traveled to Mississippi to visit a friend. Seeing the misery and poverty of rural Mississippi, she decided to stay to work in an SNCC literacy project – in the most violent place to fight for civil rights in the United States.

Civil rights leader Charles Evers meets with children in Jackson, Mississippi.
Civil rights leader Charles Evers meets with children in Jackson, Mississippi. Photography: Doris Derby

In 1972, Bill Peltz, a colleague from Southern Media, invited him to the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, to take a master’s degree (1975) in cultural and social anthropology, specializing in African-American studies, followed a doctorate (1980) .

During this time, she undertook several trips to West Africa and began bringing back evidence of African-American connections to Africa, including photographs and textiles, while supporting continued work in Mississippi.

She has taught African American Studies and Anthropology in Illinois, as well as at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the College of Charleston, South Carolina. From 1990 until her retirement in 2012, she served as Director of African American Student Services at Georgia State University.

Doris pursued practical and flexible ambitions with great energy. Three years ago she, I and others began to make her telling the story more visible by scanning her negatives and making prints, now to be seen in her book. Through her photographs, she wanted to convey the lesson that showing evidence of people’s stories increases awareness of history and results in lasting social change.

We were working together in 2021 when white police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of the murder of George Floyd, a black citizen of Minneapolis, and his phone rang continuously. Doris replied, “There is always something going on. You can take two steps forward and then take one step back or go to the side. It didn’t stop for me. Now it is a continuation of then.

In 1995, she married Robert Banks, an actor, and adopted his children, Daniel and Lisa. All three survive him, along with two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, and his sister Pauline.

Doris Adelaide Derby, photographer, civil rights activist and scholar; b. 11 November 1939; passed away on March 28, 2022