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O. N. Pruitt's Possum Town: The 'Modest Aspiration and Small Renown' of a Mississippi Photographer, 1915-1960

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 13, Number 2, Summer 2007
pp. 52-77 | 10.1353/scu.2007.0016

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Figure 1
O. N. Pruitt (right) with his son Lambuth ( far left) and probably Pruitt's brother Jim (center). Both Lambuth and Jim worked as photographers—Jim in nearby Starkville, and Lambuth in Jackson, Mississippi, circa 1925. All photographs from the O. N. Pruitt Collection in Wilson Library's North Carolina Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Sometime in the 1930s, jack-of-all-trades photographer O. N. Pruitt focused his bulky, large format view camera beside a northeast Mississippi lake surrounded with swamp cypress. Draping the camera's black cloth over his head the better to see the upside down and backwards image that appeared on the ground glass, he clicked the shutter. Black-and-white, nitrate negative film would soon reveal two African American men standing in a wooden boat filled with huge spoonbill catfish. Close by, a white man stands in the water next to another boat laden with spoonbills. He holds the trophy fish by the gill, dangling it vertically to display its size—almost as long as he is tall. The two black men in the boat, one smiling, seem deferential. But their looks and body posture, and the gaze of another black man leaning against the tree, suggest that the white man may have caught that fish, but he did not catch them all. Shadows of the four men appear as murky reflections in the lake water.

About the same time that he made this photograph Pruitt was called to take a very different picture. On Monday, July 15, 1935, the telephone rang in Pruitt's home in Columbus, Mississippi. Come quickly, he was told; there had been a lynching, a double lynching. With that, Pruitt, who always kept his camera equipment at the ready in his car trunk, sped south of town on paved and then gravel roads. There, in a backwoods churchyard, he found two men—described as young "Negro farmers" in Associated Press accounts published around the nation—lynched from a big oak tree. One Pruitt photograph depicts the bodies of Bert Moore and Dooley Morton, hanging side-by-side from ropes tied to the tree. A white man, wearing a straw boater and kneeling with his back to the camera, grasps their pants' legs, apparently to steady the bodies for the picture.

Moore and Morton—two among at least four thousand African Americans lynched between 1889 and 1946—had been accused of harassing a white woman. The day after the lynching, a Tuesday, the local newspaper reported this salient detail: hundreds of spectators came to look at the bodies of the lynched men before they were cut down, more than twelve hours after the lynching occurred. Although the images did not appear in the local newspaper, Pruitt, a commercial and studio photographer, was nonetheless contacted to document this horrific event. The subject of this image tells us everything about Pruitt's time and place, while his role in photographing it speaks volumes about the relationship of the small-town southern photographer and the community in the early twentieth-century South.

From 1915 to 1960 Pruitt was the de-facto documentarian of his postage stamp of soil, Lowndes County, Mississippi, where race, class, and gender mattered greatly. Pruitt took pictures throughout northeast Mississippi, but he focused on the crossroads town of Columbus, the county seat situated along the Alabama border. Specializing in "portrait and commercial work," Pruitt's photography studio, in the words of his advertising brochure, "pictured many phases of the life of Columbus and Columbians." Ranging from the mundane to the horrific, the photographs offer a record of family picnics, river baptisms, carnivals, parades, fires, tornadoes, funerals, and even two of the last public and legal executions by hanging in Mississippi, as well as the illegal lynching of the two African American farmers. By photographing the familial and the communal, the sacred and the profane, Pruitt shows us a broad range of community life filtered through his own perspective, that of a white man in a highly segregated society made up primarily of Anglo-Americans and African Americans.


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Figure 2
Spoonbill catfish at Alligator Lake, circa 1930s...



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