Images of Segregation

Doris Derby grew up close to the Bronx, NY when it was still largely rural. Her father was a civil engineer who couldn’t get a job because he was African American. She graduated from Hunter College at a time that photographs of children being blasted with water hoses were on the front page of every newspaper. As a photographer, she wanted to capture the culture of the African American community in the south. She set out for Mississippi with her camera in hand.

When she arrived in Mississippi, she found that her photography quest would need to be deferred. She was recruited to work on adult literacy programs to help black people qualify to vote. She became involved at the grassroots level of the Civil Rights movement. These efforts included overseeing Head Start programs, developing cooperatives to make craft items, and creating Liberty House as a retail outlet for the cooperatives.

She was also the co-founder of the Free Southern Theater which traveled throughout the state. The theater became a vehicle to encourage blacks to stand up for their rights.

What she had intended to be a one-year stay in Mississippi became a nine-year engagement in all aspects of the lives of African Americans as they struggled with segregation. Eventually, she was able to return to her photography mission.

Her photographs were designed to show the everyday life of African Americans. Her scenes were of activities that all Americans were engaged in every day. Her photographs were distinctive at the time in that they didn’t focus on the flash points of the civil rights movement. She wanted to create human images of African America life and show how African Americans were impacted by Jim Crow laws.

When Doris left Mississippi, she returned to her education earning a Ph.D. in social anthropology. Following her Ph.D., she held a number of academic positions where she worked to increase educational opportunities for African Americans.

Like many women in the civil rights movement, Doris’ contributions are largely forgotten. She was a grassroots hidden hero who did the basic work that led to the freedom being espoused by the charismatic male leaders in the movement. Bringing about change needs those who work behind the scenes even though their efforts are little recognized.

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            “When marginalized people gain voice and center their experiences, things begin changing. And we see this in all kinds of grassroots movements.” – Janet Mock (Writer)

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