Doris Derby, an educator, artist, activist and photographer of the civil rights era who turned her camera away from the violence of the times to capture the movement’s quieter moments, thereby transforming black life in rural areas of Mississippi, died March 28 in Atlanta. She was 82.
Her death, in hospice, was due to complications from cancer, said Charmaine Minnifield, an Atlanta-based artist and friend.
It was the scorching images of children being shot at by fire hoses, of peaceful protesters being attacked by growling dogs and police officers, with batons in the air, that Bronx-born Dr. Derby – a recent graduate of Hunter College in Manhattan after studying cultural anthropology – moved to Jackson, Miss., in the fall of 1963. However, when she started taking photographs, her subject matter was different.
“I was on a quest to show what the average person was doing,” she told the Southern Oral History Program in 2011, as part of a collaboration with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. “I was on a quest to show our culture in its entirety, not just a little bit, or negative stereotypes.”
However, it took a while for her to pick up a camera. For over five years she was a tireless soldier of the civil rights movement, first working as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to develop an adult literacy program.
dr. Derby then established a repertory theater, researched the educational outcomes of black and white students, seeded and oversaw Head Start programs, and led the development of cooperatives to make leather goods, black rag dolls, baskets and other local products.
A marketer for Liberty House, the point of sale for those wares, she took the products on the road and traveled across the country (she even had a booth at Woodstock). In 1968, she joined a Jackson-based initiative called Southern Media, whose mission was to document black life and educate local black residents in photography and provide equipment and a darkroom to do so, and began taking photographs. make those positive efforts.
She photographed toddlers being examined in clinics, and the young doctors and nurses who cared for them; she let older women sew at quilt co-ops, or gathered at co-op committee meetings; she snapped voters of all ages casting their votes at a local polling station; and she captured a scene in a math class that was part of an adult education program. She photographed black companies and black elected officials and the cheerful faces of the public at political rallies in black churches.
In hundreds of images, Dr. Derby black people engaged in the kind of civilian life long denied them in the American South. And her photos detailed a history of the civil rights movement’s efforts to empower black people in all areas — economic, political, social and physical.
“Doris saw the social fabric that was largely ignored by the mainstream media,” said Julian Cox, who included her work on his 2008 show “Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement 1956-1968,” at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, where he was curator of photography at the time. “These were not images created for media attention, those flashes that SNCC and other organizations used as a catalyst for fundraising. Her work was focused differently and that made it stand out.”
dr. Derby was one of the few women behind the camera – much of the movement was captured by white male photographers working for mainstream media companies – and she often turned her eye to women and children, which gave her work a special potency.
“By photographing women and children, she restored a sense of normalcy to the drama of the moment,” said Deb Willis, a professor of photography at New York University and the director of the Center for Black Visual Culture/Institute for African American. affairs of the school. † “By capturing the peaceful lives of families, she counterbalanced the impact of terror on those families.” Professor Willis added: “She showed images of the people affected by the shortcomings of the time – the inability to vote, to be educated, to have health care.”
Mississippi was completely segregated when Dr. Derby and other young civil rights workers arrived in the early 1960s – she was just 24 – and their work was extremely dangerous. Guns were kept in the Head Start centers, frequent targets of white vigilantes. In her monograph, “A Civil Rights Journey,” (2021), she recalls being housed by a family who had donated land for an education project and were threatened so often that the father and sons stood guard with guns every night. . She described driving past a church where there was a Head Start program and seeing a flame flickering at the end of a fuse leading to it. She and her colleagues jumped out of their car, stomped it out and drove on.
“We were too young to be terribly scared,” said Joyce Ladner, a sociologist, policy analyst, and SNCC alumnus who Dr. Derby first met when they were engaged in voter registration actions in Jackson. dr. Derby developed literacy programs to help would-be voters at a time when the barriers to registration were impossible test questions, such as how many grains of sand were in a quart jar or how many bubbles in a bar of soap. dr. Ladner, a former president of Howard University, was then a student at the historic Black Tougaloo College, where integrated groups could come together safely. “We were fighting for something,” she said. “We were not defeated by the problems around us.”
dr. Derby grew up in social activism: A grandparent had started a branch of the NAACP in Bangor, Maine, and her father had founded an organization to promote the careers of black civil servants. She was also an artist interested in her African heritage – she painted, she danced – and she planned to pursue a career in cultural anthropology and research African imagery around the world. One summer during her studies she traveled to Nigeria.
But the movement got in the way of her plans. She ended up spending nine years in Mississippi before returning to academia in 1972.
Doris Adelaide Derby was born on November 11, 1939. Her father, Hubert Allen Derby, was a civil servant who, because of his race, had been unable to find employment as a civil engineer despite a degree from the University of Pennsylvania; her mother, Lucille Theresa (Johnson) Derby was a homemaker and teacher assistant.
Doris grew up in Williamsbridge, a North Bronx neighborhood that was almost rural at the time. The family kept chickens and ducks, grew vegetables and grew fruit trees. Her father supplemented his income by making cabinets; Doris learned woodworking from him and sewing from her mother, which served her well in Mississippi years later, when she oversaw the handicraft cooperatives for Liberty House.
She graduated from Hunter College in 1962 (and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013). She received her master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Illinois Chicago in 1975, and her Ph.D. there in 1980.Dr. Derby taught anthropology and African American studies at that institution, as well as at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the College of Charleston, in South Carolina. From 1990 until her retirement in 2012 or so, she was the director of the Office of African American Student Services and Programs at Georgia State University. She was also an early member of Sistagraphy, a photo collective for black women in Atlanta.
She married Robert A. Banks, an actor and voiceover, in 1995. They were both salsa enthusiasts. Her husband survives her, as does a sister, Pauline Roland Scott.
In her monograph, Dr. Derby notes that despite the energy of the civil rights movement, there is no real progress in places like Mississippi. “There were few clear gains, just as gains were uneven all over the South,” she wrote.
She concluded: “Now is a continuation of then. We see repetitions of what we saw then, such as voter suppression and police brutality. As you progress, the enemy takes steps to block your achievements, and you have to do something else.”