Stateway Gardens Highrise Housing Project On Chicago’s South Side, May 1973 (Flickr)
This is the second part of our series about Race and DOCUMERICA.
For many DOCUMERICA photographers, images of Black life were at best an incidental or marginal part of their larger assignments for the Environmental Protection Agency. In some cases, location helped to shape such disparities. Even into the 1970s, African Americans constituted less than one percent of the total population in states such as Maine, New Hampshire, Idaho, Utah, and North Dakota. However, it was also common for assignments which focused on more racially diverse states or cities to contain few images of Black life; a trend that was likely a result of the preponderance of white photographers among the project’s contributors.
The most striking exception to this trend was an assignment by the Chicago-based African American photojournalist John H. White, who chose to intentionally center the city’s African American community in his contributions to DOCUMERICA. In truth, it is hard to overstate the significance of White’s work for the EPA vis-à-vis Black representation, with close to half of the photographs I have cataloged through my digital history project This Land is Your Land coming from White’s portfolio. White’s assignment is even more impressive when we consider that he was still a relative newcomer to the Windy City; the photographer had relocated from North Carolina during the late 1960s to take up a role at the Chicago Daily News. Approaching its fiftieth anniversary, White’s DOCUMERICA assignment remains a remarkable achievement – a vivid, complex and intimate portrayal of the nation’s second largest Black urban community in all its sprawling diversity and complexity.
Many of White’s images offer a joyous, celebratory documentation of Black life in Chicago; perhaps none more so than his documentation of the 1973 Bud Billiken parade, a well-established and hugely popular South Side tradition that will be the focus of my next essay for Black Perspectives. However, his DOCUMERICA assignment also endures as an…