In-Between the Color Lines with a Spy Camera: The Appalachian Urban Folk Photography of Isaiah Rice

By Waters, Darin J.; Hyde, Gene et al. | Southern Cultures, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

In-Between the Color Lines with a Spy Camera: The Appalachian Urban Folk Photography of Isaiah Rice


Waters, Darin J., Hyde, Gene, Betsalel, Kenneth, Southern Cultures


"We don't know nothin but what we see ..." --Zora Neale Hurston (1)

After her mother Jeroline Rice passed in 2003, Marian Waters sorted through boxes of photographs that her father Isaiah Rice had taken over the course of his adult life. Rice, who died in 1980, had taken hundreds of photographs of family, friends, and strangers in his Asheville, North Carolina community. While Waters always knew her father loved photography and would go everywhere with his cameras, she laughed to remember how some people in the community joked that he was like a spy with that tiny camera he owned, even taking it to church on Sundays. He was a proud man who knew how to remain invisible when he needed to take a picture.

Waters considered discarding the photos her father had taken of people she did not know, but she shared them first with her son, Darin Waters, a scholar of American and African American history, who immediately recognized the importance of the more than 1,000 vernacular photographs taken by his grandfather. He shared Rice's photographs with Gene Hyde and Ken Betsalel, colleagues at UNC Asheville, who agreed that Rice's photographs provided fresh insight into the unique cultural context of an urban African American community in southern Appalachia.

Rice's photographs of Asheville draw some comparisons to other photographers who were working in the city at the same time. The largest and best known Asheville area photographic collection is the E. M. Ball Photographic Collection, which contains the work of professional photographers Ewart M. Ball Sr. and his son Ewart M. Ball Jr., as well as several photographers who worked for the Balls's studio. The Ball Collection, housed in Special Collections at UNC Asheville, contains over 11,000 photos and negatives and includes their work as both contract photojournalists for the local newspaper and as professional studio photographers. Although it documents Asheville over half a century, it contains only a handful of photographs of African Americans. What makes the Rice Collection uniquely valuable is that Isaiah Rice's photographs document a wide range of subjects, from his own Burton Street neighborhood, where he was known as "the picture man," to the wider Asheville communities through which he traveled. (2)

"THERE ARE FEW NEGROES"?

Isaiah Rice (1917-1980) was born in Asheville, North Carolina, to Theodore and Alberta Rice. A loving family man of deep faith, conviction, and responsibility, he married Asheville native Jeroline Bradley Rice in 1942, and they had one daughter, Marian Waters. He was educated at Stephens-Lee High School and made the best of opportunities available to him, including working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression. Rice was drafted into the U.S. Army, and later worked as a beverage deliveryman for a local distributor until his death in 1980. He was well known in the African American community and faced the daily humiliations and limitations of racial prejudice and segregation by creating strong community bonds.

Rice made his photographs during the post-World War II era of uneven national economic development, continued racial segregation, the ongoing fight for civil rights and racial equality, and the subsequent years of suburbanization and urban renewal in Asheville. When Rice was taking his photographs during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Asheville's African American community constituted a sizeable portion of the city's population. The 1950 Census reports that 12,723 "nonwhite" people lived in urban Asheville, which amounted to 21.8 percent of the city's population. By the 1960 census, the "nonwhite" population was 12,504, or 18.2 percent of the city's population, and by 1970, Asheville's "Negro or other races" population was 10,671, or 18.5 percent of the total urban population. In contrast to the African American population in urban Asheville, 1970 census figures for ten rural mountain counties near Asheville show an average African American population of 3. …

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