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John G. Zimmerman: Racist America In Black And White

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John G. Zimmerman’s early black and white photography is celebrated in a new book, America in Black and White. 

Zimmerman (1927-2002) was a star of American magazine photography, shooting covers and working as a photojournalist for the likes of LIFE, Time, Ebony and Sports Illustrated. He was a great innovator, adapting one of Charles A. Hulcher Co’s cameras to create vivid high-speed shots of athletes in action.

But in this gallery we’ll focus on Zimmerman’s work in the 1950s.

 

Ebony Joe Louis 26 001

Joe Louis – 1954

 

From 1952-1955, Zimmerman photographed a series of assignments for Ebony depicting the lives of African Americans in the Midwest and the Jim Crow south. These photographs are a lesser-known yet notable part of Zimmerman’s early work. The subject matter ranges from the first all black supermarket in Detroit, boxing legend Joe Louis, to sharecropper Matt Ingram’s quest for justice.

 

MAtt Ingram

Matt Ingram 4 001

 

In 1951, Matt Ingram, a black tenant farmer in Yanceyville, North Carolina, ‘was charged with assault with intent to rape a white girl, although he was around 70 feet away from her at the time. He was eventually convicted of assault, however, based on her fear of his supposed “reckless eyeballing”.’

 

Matt Ingram, wife Linward and their children pray before dinner, Yanceyville, North Carolina, 1953.

Matt Ingram, wife Linward and their children pray before dinner, Yanceyville, North Carolina, 1953.

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A seventeen-year-old white woman named Willa Jean Boswell testified that she was scared when her neighbor Ingram looked at her from a distance of about 65 feet. Prosecutors demanded a conviction of assault with intent to rape that was reduced to assault on a female by the judge, leading to a two-year sentence. He was defended by a white lawyer, Ernest Frederick Upchurch, Sr.

At the appeal in Superior Court, the judge instructed the jury that Ingram was guilty if he used “intentional threats or menace of violence such as looking at a person in a leering manner, that is, in some sort of sly or threatening or suggestive manner…he causes another to reasonably apprehend imminent danger” The all-white jury again returned a conviction, leading to a six-month sentence of labor on the roads, suspended for five years.

However, after pressure from the NAACP and African-American media like Ebony, the state supreme court vacated the conviction because: “it cannot be said that a pedestrian may be assaulted by a look, however frightening, from a person riding in an automobile some distance away. …He may have looked with lustful eyes but there was the absence of any overt act.” The look alone no longer represented grounds for conviction. People continued to be convicted of assault if there was “reasonable apprehension” of danger, such as a body movement, movement in the direction of the person under observation and so on.

Ingram spent over two years in prison while his 3 trials took two-and-a-half years to resolve. [State v. Ingram, 74 S.E.2d 532 (N.C. 1953]

Ingram was married to Linwood Jeffress Ingram (1910-2003). The couple had nine children. He died in 1973.

 

Mariner's Church, Detroit, 1955

 

While the Ebony assignments are straight-forward photojournalism, Zimmerman also created pictures during this time that pushed the boundaries of photojournalism. In 1955, LIFE assigned him to document Detroit’s old Mariners’ Church being moved to a new location across town. The move took four weeks to complete yet Zimmerman created a photo that gives the effect of the church hurtling through downtown Detroit at top speed. The use of technology to show on film what the naked eye could never see became a hallmark of Zimmerman’s mature work.

 

Waiting Room in the Northland Center Shopping Center, 1954

Waiting Room in the Northland Center Shopping Center, 1954

Music teacher Katherine Motta in front of her home, 1953

Music teacher Katherine Motta in front of her home, 1953

Jump Rope Camp, McMinnville Tennessee, 1953. John G. Zimmerman

Jump Rope Camp, McMinnville Tennessee, 1953.

Cleaning Old Glory, 1955

Cleaning Old Glory, 1955

John G. Zimmerman Rat catcher shows his bounty in the town square, Louisa Kentucky, 1953.

Rat catcher shows his bounty in the town square, Louisa Kentucky, 1953.

John G. Zimmerman Richard Nixon, 1955

Richard Nixon at Young Republicans Biennial National Convention, Detroit, 1955

John G. Zimmerman Shoe Shine Contest, Wilson, North Carolina, 1952

Curtis Phillips, winner of the Shoe Shine Contest, Wilson, North Carolina, 1952

Department store, 1953 John G. Zimmerman

Department store, 1953

John G. Zimmerman Museum staff installs sculpture in gallery, Presbytere, New Orleans Louisiana, 1953

Museum staff installs sculpture in gallery, Presbytere, New Orleans Louisiana, 1953

 

You can buy this terrific book here.

  • Roland C.

    Re: Waiting Room in the Northland Center Shopping Center, 1954
    The woman in the dark coat looks like a brunette Betty Draper from “Mad Men”

  • Fred Johansen

    When is your racist England pictorial coming ?

    • Dave McDougall

      And your point is what exactly?

      At least in England (and by England I presume you actually mean Britain aka the UK) we’ve never had segregation…

      Why don’t you post something about racism in Britain if that interests you enough?

  • NGO

    I just thank God we have brave, honest sites like Flashbak to keep us from forgetting our shameful past. Honestly, do you really believe there’s any chance white Americans will ever be accused of forgetting our racist past. We’ve just had another conversation about race for the last eight years, and every time I visit sites like this one there’s another pictorial dedicated to America’s shameful racist past. Trust me, we know slavery and racism happened. Are you hoping to move forward? Rubbing our noses in it is a strange way to do it. I’m not picking a fight, but seriously, do you really believe that if not for you, we would fester in arrogant denial? Get out a bit. Visit any, and I mean any, website, radio station, newspaper, or TV network. It is literally a never-ending drum beat of how evil white people are. Not looking for sympathy, just a brief respite from the sad parade that is, America’s ugly racist past. Wait, what am I talking about, America just elected Hitler! Oh my God! We’re doomed.

    • wigga whambo

      Oh, gosh I feel so bad. I’ve set all my slaves free. I’ve already
      given up all my property to atone for all the guilt I have suffered
      through these past years. In fact, I’m ready to give up the shirt off
      my back and walk around in skins like my ancestors did I feel so bad.
      (sob tear)

  • LibertyJusticeAndFrall

    Except for the *text* beneath the Matt Ingram photos, not a single one of these photos even remotely shows racism, with the possible exception of the Department Store photo, which is fairly clearly staged. These are just great classic photos by a gifted photographer. You cheapen his work and considerable talent by trying to cast them as “Racist America In Black And White”. Almost nothing is really about race – this post tries to force the issue, though, and in the process, insults the subjects, the artist, and the audience. Take your racism goggles off, and you might – just might, if you can open your eyes without them – begin to see *people*.

  • I thought about it, and I’m okay with this headline. Until we finally come to terms with our history, racist America it will be.