A pair of Hattiesburg photographers have contributed photographs to a national effort to record the history surrounding the struggle of women – and particularly Black women – in gaining the right to vote.
In August 1920, the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibited states and the federal government from denying voting rights to citizens on the basis of sex, was certified, supposedly ending a decades-long movement for women’s suffrage.
However, racist Jim Crow laws – which were especially prominent in Mississippi – continued to impede voting for Black citizens, a matter that was not resolved until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The act, considered to be the most effective piece of federal civil rights legislation ever enacted, prohibited racial discrimination in voting, and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it into law at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
Congress subsequently amended the act five times, expanding its protections and enforcing the voting rights guaranteed by the 14th and 15th Amendments.
Numerous Black residents of Hattiesburg were involved in the long and often bloody civil rights struggle, and Betty Press and Carolyn McIntyre Norton – photographers with close ties to the Hub City and to the University of Southern Mississippi – are working with A Yellow Rose Project, a photographic collaboration of responses, reflections and reactions to the passage of the 19th Amendment, to tell some of those stories.
The project was organized by photographers Meg Griffiths and Frances Jakubek, and it brings together more than 100 contemporary female photographers to tell the interesting – and often heartbreaking – narratives surrounding the civil rights and suffrage struggles. The project draws its name from the women who wore yellow roses in support of suffrage.
Griffiths invited Press, a retired Southern Miss professor and photographer known for her photos of daily life in Africa, to collaborate on the project.
“I had worked with Meg Griffiths, who is one of the organizers … we knew each other, and we appreciated each other’s work,” said Press. “I didn’t even think to do the project because I was in Kenya, but because she invited me personally, I said ‘I have to think of a way to do this,’ because it’s so important … it’s such an important project.”
Since she was out of the country with her husband, Bob, Press decided to ask Norton, a local fine art photographer and adjunct professor at Southern Miss, for assistance.
“I teach printmaking at the university, and I’m always amazed when I have students who very much care about voting, but I also have a certain number of students who don’t vote,” said Norton. “If we don’t keep these stories alive, people can become complacent, or they can think their votes don’t count. Your vote does count … and the overall project is interesting, and it’s important. I was honored to participate.”
The two photographers selected five Black women from Hattiesburg who were active in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Press and Norton said Hattiesburg was “an epicenter for voting registration activity,” and they wanted to honor the lives of the participants “by preserving a glimpse into the courage they embody for making real change against the deep-seated practices and discriminatory Jim Crow laws aimed at excluding them from their constitution right to vote.”
In selecting the subjects for the photographs, the photographers relied heavily on research materials at Southern Miss, including Special Collections and the university’s archive of oral histories. They also contacted Hattiesburg attorney and civil rights figure Glenda Funchess, who helped them narrow their focus to five participants.
“During my research, I collected pages of quotes,” said Norton. “What we wanted to do was let the women speak for themselves and let their quotes tell the stories behind their photos. A lot of it depended on the quotes we found and how they worked together.”
Press contributed her 2013 photograph of Peggy Jean Connor, a beauty shop owner in Hattiesburg who was recruited in 1962 for leadership positions in local civil rights activities, to the project.
Connor was co-founder, executive secretary, precinct chair and national delegate for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party as well as secretary and treasurer for the Council of Federated Organizations, which helped coordinate the 1964 Freedom Summer voter registration project. She was jailed for her efforts.
In addition to the photograph, Press also submitted a quote from Connor. When asked why she was recruited to assist with voting rights struggles, Connor responded, “If they could get beauticians and midwives, then we would have some influence over talking to other people … and owning our own businesses, there’s no way of cutting our money off.”
Connor died at age 85 in January 2018.
Norton submitted her photograph of Doris Townsend Gaines, who in 1964 attended one of the Freedom Schools established to supplement the inferior educational opportunities provided to Black youths in Mississippi’s public schools. Gaines is also the creator and editor of “The Class of 1968: A Thread Through Time,” a compilation of coming-of-age stories from a segregated high school during the Civil Rights Movement.
Along with the photograph, Norton submitted a quote from Gaines: “In the afternoons, we went into some of the Black neighborhoods with some older youth to canvass for potential new voters, encouraging people to register and vote. When we got a favorable response, we would arrange transportation downtown to the courthouse for potential voters to register. I remember vividly sometimes we were afraid. It was very difficult times, but we were careful and stuck with the adult leaders.”
The photo of Gaines was taken at the former Rowan High School, which is now Rowan Elementary School.
Norton also submitted her photograph of Ellie Davis Dahmer, the widow of slain civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer, who headed the Forrest County NAACP and was instrumental in helping Black Mississippians register to vote. The Dahmer home was firebombed by the KKK in 1966, and Vernon Dahmer died of injuries sustained while protecting his family from the attack.
The photograph of Ellie Dahmer was taken earlier this year during the dedication ceremony for a statue of her husband in downtown Hattiesburg.
Dahmer’s quote submitted to accompany the photo reminisced on her husband’s death and its meaning: “Well, the only way I can look at Vernon’s death and not cry about it is when I walk in the bank, I see Black faces there. You see buses driving, you see Black faces on them. You see the police force, you see Black faces. Well, his dying did all this – then, it’s worth it … and he would have done it again.”
The final two photographs submitted by Norton were of Lillie Dwight and Ruby Wilson.
Dwight, along with her sister, peacefully protested in a march for voting rights in Jackson during Freedom Summer in 1964. Her family home in Hattiesburg was a rallying point for civil rights activists, and her family hosted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. just two weeks before his assassination. The home was declared a Historic Landmark in 2019, and Dwight is standing in front of the home in the submitted photograph.
To accompany her photograph, Norton submitted a quote from Dwight that recaps the brutal events of the Jackson protest: “We were not transported to a jail but to the Jackson Fairground. People were being beaten to the point that blood was flowing from their heads and bodies.”
The photograph of Wilson was taken in front of the Forrest County Courthouse, where, in 1962, Wilson and 16 other witnesses testified in federal court to expose discriminatory voting practices enforced by Theron Lynd, then the county registrar. From 1959-1962, Lynd rejected all Black voter applications in Hattiesburg.
In order to register to vote, Lynd required Black voters to interpret difficult sections of the Mississippi Constitution in writing. Wilson’s application was among the rejected ones, and it was read as evidence in federal court.
Wilson’s accompanying quote is about the trial: “The judge looked over to Lynd and said, ‘I couldn’t have interpreted it any better myself.’” Following the trial, 43 Black Mississippians had their formerly rejected applications approved and left the courthouse as registered voters.
Griffiths said the overall goal of the project is to “offer multiple perspectives on American history, women’s lived experiences and the work still being done to move toward equality.”
“In order to have a rich and thoughtful response to this anniversary, which is not an anniversary for all to celebrate, we wanted to invite a diverse group of women whose perspectives would not be the same,” she said.
Griffiths added that the project was inspired by a Sojourner Truth quote: “Women’s fates were linked, but not because they were the same.”
Norton said she was proud to showcase the numerous Hattiesburg residents who made change possible.
“At the end of the project, you could look back and see … there were all different forces working, large and small, to make change happen,” she said. “As I was researching the quotes for each of the women, one of the things Betty and I loved about it was … the contributions were different types, but they all came together … to effect change and make history.”
Click here to learn more about the project.