Capturing Greenville: Henry Clay Anderson and Photography in the Deep South

Beginning in the late 1940s, photographer Henry Clay Anderson recorded an insider's picture of black life in the city of Greenville, Mississippi during the era of segregation. Seen through Anderson's lens, Greenville is a place of spirit and resolve—a community where the black middle-class refused to be defined and held captive by the systemic injustice and racial stereotypes of the time. Anderson's portrayal makes possible a deeper and more nuanced understanding of African American life in the Deep South. Black photography studios played an integral role in shaping how African Americans pictured themselves and their communities in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Like Anderson, black photographers created portraits of people and communities that defied racial stereotypes, revealing beauty and steadfastness amidst the oppression and violence. For black Mississippians, even in cities like Greenville, intimidation and violence were a part of daily life. Three dozen racially motivated murders occurred between 1955 and 1967, a pivotal period in the Civil Rights Movement. Only a few of the killers were prosecuted—with most being acquited by all-white juries.

Greenville was an exception in Jim Crow Mississippi, where most black people lived in extreme poverty. A river port and regional commercial center, the town was relatively prosperous, with a substantial black middle class. Anderson documented this community's daily social, cultural, and political rhythms, its worlds of art and entertainment, literature and politics, spirituality and social activism. His images correct stereotypical depictions of black Mississippians, but they also sometimes smooth over the harshness and violence of black life in the South.

Henry Clay Anderson in Army Uniform, ca. 1945.

© Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, gift of Charles Schwartz and Shawn Wilson

The Henry Clay Anderson collection of photographs is a stunning look into the lives of African Americans in Greenville, Mississippi. Unfortunately, we only have a small amount of information about the individuals featured in these amazing photographs. If you see a photograph, a place, object or individual that you recognize, please let us know via email