Early Female Chroniclers of African-American Life in Alabama

AHF Recognizes Women’s History Month
During March, we will feature a series of blog posts focusing on Women’s History Month. Please join us in the discussion and comment with your own opinions and tales.

As February—Black History Month—turns to March—Women’s History Month—it’s worth noting that three women played key roles in recording the African-American experience in rural Alabama in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Through oral history, photography and art, they captured a way of life defined by deep poverty and Jim Crow segregation, but rich in stories, music, religion and strong family ties.

Arguably the most famous of these women was Ruby Pickens Tartt of Livingston (1880-1974). Daughter of a prominent Black Belt cotton grower, she became captivated at an early age by the black community surrounding her in Sumter County. She attended Alabama State Normal College (now the University of West Alabama), studying under the progressive educator Julia Tutwiler. She later attended the prestigious Chase School of Art in New York, where she studied under the realist painter William Merritt Chase. The combination of her early interest in the people of the Black Belt, her art training and financial need, led Tartt to accept a job with the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. In 1936 she was appointed chair of the local Federal Writers’ Project in Sumter County, whose responsibilities included accompanying the ethnomusicologist John Lomax to record folk songs for the Library of Congress. Between the two, they compiled a large collection of recordings of songs and interviews with ex-slaves. Among them was the local cook Vera Hall Ward, who is now considered among the most important folk, blues and spirituals singers of the 20th century. The online Encyclopedia of Alabama (EOA) includes Lomax’s recording of Vera Hall singing “Railroad Bill.”

Instead of using a tape recorder, Mary Morgan Keipp (1875-1961) documented life in the Black Belt with a different instrument—a camera. A native of Selma, Keipp trained in the Northeast to become a nurse-anesthetist. Like Tartt, she was also exposed to the visual arts while away from Alabama. Between 1899 and 1904, Keipp exhibited her photographs, which she made on trips home to Selma, with some of the greatest photographers in America, including Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Thomas Eakins. She returned permanently to Selma in 1904 and ceased exhibiting. As photography scholar Frances Robb writes in her EOA entry on Keipp: “Although some of Keipp’s photographs were publicly exhibited and probably interpreted across a spectrum of racial attitudes, no comic or denigrating elements are evident in her work. Because her photographic activity was not reported in Selma newspapers and was completely unknown outside her family at her death, her images were apparently not intended to influence Alabamians’ ideas about race and culture. Instead, they are most appropriately viewed as Keipp’s personal appreciation of rural and small-town Alabama life and a means of artistic and perhaps social discovery.”

The last of the three women, who documented African American life in postbellum Alabama, was Maria Howard Weeden of Huntsville (1846-1905). Born a generation earlier than Tartt and Keipp, Weeden also studied art—not in the North but from the successful local portraitist William Frye. But her education and youth were profoundly interrupted by the Civil War. Her relatively prosperous family was forced to flee Huntsville when Union troops occupied the city in 1862. When they returned after the war, they were financially ruined. To supplement the family income Howard (as she was called), began producing hand-painted greeting cards and writing romantic novels, which she then illustrated with her own calligraphy. In the 1890s she produced the most important work of her career—brush-and-ink portraits of ex-slaves who lived nearby. These straightforward but sympathetic images gained her international recognition and eventual exhibitions in Chicago, Berlin and Paris. Today Howard Weeden’s work and life can be seen firsthand in the Weeden House Museum near downtown Huntsville. Built in 1819, the Federal style house is one of the oldest in Alabama.