Portrait of Annie Sybil Thomas Jarret by James P. Newton – First Black Professional Photographer in Memphis

by Earnestine Jenkins, Professor of Art History-Visual Studies, Department of Art, University of Memphis

James P. Newton was the first professional black photographer in Memphis. In 1897 James P. Newton opened his own photography business under the listing ‘Photographer’ in the Degaris City Directory at 121 Beale Avenue.[1] Sources describe his work as of the highest quality, and state that Newton’s skills with a camera were widely known. He operated his studio until about 1909, when he may have relocated to Chicago where he had extensive property interests. The few existing examples of Newton’s work indicate that he was the preferred photographer of Memphis black elite

Recently, a photograph taken by this pioneering black photographer was ‘discovered’ in the family archives of retired librarian, Hattie Mae Thomas Yarbrough.

Photo 2
Image courtesy of Chick History

Mrs. Yarbrough is part of a statewide archives project organized by Chick History in partnership with Humanities Tennessee to document early African American women’s political history, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and women achieving the right to vote in 1920. The project is focused on local history, and is looking for family and community history about black women teachers and education; suffrage-voting-political activism; club women; church activities; community work; and health and nursing. On November 17 -18, 2017, the public brought photographs, letters, scrapbooks, and other memorabilia to the National Civil Rights Museum, where a team of scholars examined the collectables and selected items for the archivists to scan. As one of the humanities scholars for the project, and a specialist in the study of historic African American photographs, it was a pleasure to look through these material artifacts.

Mrs. Yarbrough, who is 95 years old, travelled from Tipton County to share her local history. In examining her collection, I was thrilled to see a photograph taken by James P. Newton. It was a picture of Mrs. Yarbrough’s aunt, Annie Sybil Thomas Jarret, a schoolteacher born in Hardeman County. Photographs by Memphis’ first African American photographer are extremely rare in local archives. I have identified and written about six Newton photographs in special collections at the University of Memphis. It is the existence of important artifacts like these that highlight the significance of archival projects attempting to capture local African American histories before they are lost and disappear. In the following essay, I discus how James P. Newton’s work, like that of other black photographers at the turn of the century, played a critical role in visualizing the New Negro movement, establishing the cultural context in which he took the photograph of Mrs. Yarbrough’s aunt, Mrs. Jarret.

James P. Newton & The New Negro Movement

An early example of Newton’s work is the portrait of a woman named Martha Ferguson. The photograph is part of the Robert Church family archives at the University of Memphis. The annotated notes on the back were written by Robert Church’s granddaughter, Roberta Church.[2] Her notes identify Newton as the colored photographer who proceeded the Hooks Bros., the most popular African American photographers in Memphis during the first half of the twentieth century.

The success of early black photographers like James P. Newton was increasingly linked to the first phase of a way of thinking defined as racial uplift ideology.[3] By 1900 African American leaders were beginning to designate these core ideas as an intellectual movement that came to be called the New Negro movement. It was linked to the assault on political and civil rights of African Americans mainly in the south following Reconstruction, when influential and impoverished whites collaborated in instituting the separation of blacks and whites in virtually all phases of public and social life.

Racist images played a critical role in crafting the visual stereotypes that developed alongside the rise of white supremacy and racial subordination. The proliferation of imagery drawn from plantation mythologies, vaudeville and blackface minstrelsy, vulgar pseudo-science ideas, and the eroticizing of black bodies, was used to justify the treatment of African Americans as an uncivilized class of sub-humans unworthy of equal treatment under the law. Late nineteenth century advancements in the mass production and dissemination of information joined forces in disseminating racist imagery throughout American popular culture.

In response, self-appointed leaders of the growing black middle class demanded different pictures and symbols. They called upon black photographers to help craft a new modern image of African Americans suitable for the dawn of the twentieth century. It was within this context that James P. Newton’s self-representation was featured in a publication entitled, Sparkling Gems of Race Knowledge Worth Reading, 1897.[4] The book was published in conjunction with Tennessee’s commemoration of the one hundredth anniversary of the state’s admission into the Union.[5]

The Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition, considered a great success, took place in the capital of Nashville and ran for six months beginning May 1,1897. The Tennessee Centennial was one of many southern expositions held throughout the region from the late 19th through the first half of the 20th century. Southern expositions sought to revive the prosperity of the south, and reconstruct a picture of themselves as the improved new south. White southerners saw blacks as necessary to conveying an idealized notion of racial harmony and progress that did not exist.

james newtorn portrait
Portrait of James P. Newton

The portrait of James P. Newton was presented as that of an upwardly striving black middle class subject akin to the other illustrations of success stories in the text. “The description read, “J.P. Newton, Memphis, Tenn., One of the finest photographers in the South.” It is probable that Newton created his own portrait, and may have taken some of the pictures of the other black Tennesseans.

Newton’s portrait was one of seven images connected to the black middle-class in Memphis. Out of the forty-two photographs more Memphians were represented than any other city in Tennessee. The studio portraits included Alfred Means, one of the few professional hatters in the south; Emma O. Kennedy, a teacher at LeMoyne Institute; Dr. Georgia Patton, Memphis first black woman physician and missionary to Liberia; Mrs. V.W. Broughton who was known for her missionary work among black Baptist woman; and former Memphian, journalist, Ida B. Wells.

Early twentieth century African American photographers like James P. Newton kept pace with modern developments in their chosen profession.

Newton started to use a larger size canvas of cabinet card that could better accommodate innovation. In addition to the standard pastel colored mounts, Newton experimented with different colored backings like grey, dark green, and blacks, showing a preference for the dark colored cards introduced in the late 1880s. The imprint of the photographer’s studio that was once on the back of the card moved to the front below the photograph. And sometimes he moved outside of the studio and took portraits in a patron’s home.

eudora clouston portrait
Portrait of Eudora Clouston

His photograph of Mrs. Eudora Clouston is an excellent example of these developments. Newton photographed Dora Clouston after the death of her husband, Joseph Clouston in 1894. Free people of color before the Civil War, the Cloustons were part of the small but influential circle of African American elite in Memphis.

Mrs. Clouston’s seated figure, as well as the draped window and round table covered with a white cloth, draw the eye towards the huge Bible balancing the right side of the composition. The Bible directs the viewer towards important symbols of Christianity, foremost the large jeweled cross pinned to the collar of Clouston’s dress shirt. She wears a long waist length watch chain with key, a ring on her left forefinger, and small dark earrings. The fine style of blouse and skirt exhibit high quality fabric set off with skilled stitching and subtle details of design. The dark clothing and minimal jewelry portray the appropriate cultural and social practices for a widow still mourning a beloved husband.

widow portrait
Portrait of a Widow, Courtesy of University of Memphis Special Collections

Newton’s photographs are now revealing painted backdrops that bring more depth, and richness of detail to his imagery. In his picture of an African American woman who appears to be dressed in all black, the subject stands in front of an elaborate scene painted to resemble light shining through a pane glass window with floor length drawn curtains (special collections, University of Memphis). There is a painted architectural element created to resemble a slender, ornately carved column on top of a large pedestal. A mural depicting an idyllic view of nature with a lake and overhanging trees is partially visible in the background. Newton appropriately chose a dark blue-black color for the cardboard mounting. The details of fashion suggest that the image may have functioned as a type of commemorative portrait for the patron that documented a period of mourning in the life of the subject. Did the woman wish to mark the passing of a loved one by having her portrait taken while she was dressed in a manner that expressed her grief?

James P. Newton’s portrait of Annie Sybil Thomas Jarret was part of broader issues around race and representation at the turn of the century.

In spite of the damage, it is evident that aesthetically it combines elements seen in both of the latter portraits discussed. The same dark green card was used as a mount seen in the Clouston Portrait, while Annie stands in front of the identical studio prop or background painting seen in the portrait of the widow. As in the previous two photographs, Newton now uses an embossed, cursive signature on the front, placed in the center, lower section of the photograph. This imprint lists 382 Main Street as the studio address, the location Newton moved to in 1900.[6]

kortrecht grammar school
Photo of Kortrecht Grammar School

Mrs. Jarret, (1881-1975), was born Annie Sybil Thomas near Saulsbury, Tennessee in Hardeman County. Like many African Americans in the counties that surround Memphis, Annie Thomas had to come to the city to pursue educational opportunities. She attended historic Clay Street School, established in the late 1860s. In 1873 a new brick building was built and the school changed its name to Kortrecht Grammar School, and again later to Kortrecht High School in 1891. In 1926, Kortrecht High School became Booker T. Washington High School. It opened in a new building with Green Polonius Hamilton as principal, who authored The Bright Side of Memphis in 1908.

first memphis black high school graduation class
Photograph of one of the first African American graduating Memphis high school classes

Generations of African Americans in Memphis and the region were educated at this institution that began as Clay Street School. Like Annie Sybil Thomas, most of the black women teaching in the city and adjacent counties received some part of their education in the grammar and high schools built for African Americans in Memphis.

Mrs. Jarret went on to attended Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, graduating with a degree in education during the late 1930s. She also completed coursework at Tennessee State University in Nashville. Jarret taught school in Obion, Trenton, Union City, and Saulsbury Tennessee. Jarret retired from Henry County Training School in Paris, Tennessee.

African American photographers like James P. Newton were central to visually documenting the achievements of black Americans like Mrs. Jarret.

From the 1880s to the 1930s, African Americans like Annie Sybil Thomas Jarret, flocked to photography studios to have portraits made as they chose to represent themselves.[7] They wanted images that celebrated their beauty and accomplishments, portrayed their dignity and pride as individuals and in their communities, and counteracted the racist imagery so prevalent in American culture. The numerous black men and women that established themselves as photographers at the turn of the century transformed the visual representation of African Americans. Historic, early photographs of African Americans exist today as a testament to their refusal to be victimized, their ongoing struggle for full citizenship, and the vibrant cultures they created during the first three decades of the twentieth century.

[1] Degaris City Directory, 1897. Shelby County Archives.

[2] Robert R. Church Family Archives, Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries.

[3] On the relationship between black culture and “New Negro” ideas see Caroline Goeser, Picturing the New Negro: Harlem Renaissance Print Culture and Modern Black Identity (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2007); Anne Elizabeth Carroll, word, Image and the New Negro: Representation and Identity in the Harlem Renaissance, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005); Davarian L. Baldwin, Chicago’s new negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, & Black Urban Life Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007); Kevin K. Gaines, Uplifting the Race: Black leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: North Carolina press, 1996); and Henry Louis Gates, “The New Negro and the Black Image from Booker T. Washington to Alain Locke,” TeacherServe, pp.1-11, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org.

[4] James T. Haley, Sparkling Gems of Rae Knowledge Worth Reading: a Compendium of Valuable Information and Wise Suggestions that will Inspire Noble Effort at the Hands of Every-Race Loving Man, Woman, and Child (Nashville: J.T. Haley & Company, Publishers, 1897).

[5] For more on black participation in world fairs and expositions see Mabel O. Wilson, Negro building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012); Christopher Robert Reed, “All the World is Here!”: The Black Presence at White city (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000); and Theda Perdue, Race and the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895 (Athens University of Georgia Press, 2010).

[6] Polk City Directory, 1900. Shelby County Archives.

[7] Brian Wallis, and Deborah Willis, African American Vernacular Photography, (New York: International Center of Photography, 2005), , p.13.

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