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  • Sam F. Vance, Jr., “Character-Taker”:The Faces of Small-Town and Rural North Carolina, 1930s–1940s
  • Rah Bickley (bio)

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Figure 1.

Photographer Sam F. Vance, Jr. of Kernersville, North Carolina, late 1940s or early 1950s.

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I came upon the pictures about fifteen years ago. I was searching for something in my parents' guest room in High Point, North Carolina, sitting on the wooden floorboards and peering under the dust ruffle of a high, old-fashioned bed. In the gloom were stacks of assorted cardboard boxes. Curious, I slid one out and lifted the crumbling lid.

Inside, hundreds of black and white prints were scattered, stacked, dumped. Some were the size of a postage stamp; others were almost as big as posters. Some bore no identification; others had been carefully matted, signed, titled, and sent off to photo contests in New York. I found a picture of my mother as a young girl, wincing as her mother tugged a comb through her wavy hair. Here was a shoe shine boy, whipping his cloth into a blur across someone's leather dress shoe. And here was a clown in front of a toy store in a stuffed polka-dot suit, caught with a cigarette between his fingers. The titles on the picture mats were in the precise, artistic hand I recognized in the signature of books that had belonged to my grandfather: Sam F. Vance, Jr.

"Mr. Vance," as most called him, was a familiar sight around his hometown of Kernersville, North Carolina—a portly, well-dressed gentleman lugging around his camera gear. He took his camera, tripod, and various lenses along on Sunday drives in the country with his wife and four children. He brought his camera to Taylor Brothers Tobacco Manufacturing in Winston-Salem, where he worked in his younger days. The photo gear rode along in the car to church, on hunting trips, to the county fair. When he got home, he hauled it back out and took it straight to his darkroom, where he developed his best photos into prints.

He wasn't a professional photographer, but he was Kernersville's unofficial documentarian, and the hundreds of images he left behind portray a small Piedmont North Carolina community in the 1930s and 1940s. In the country, a young boy grins as he pulls an old-fashioned buggy behind him down a dirt road. A grizzled man sits on his cabin porch, squinting at the camera while his bird dog nuzzles him. Another fellow cools his feet in a bucket of water. A white-haired man with thick-rimmed glasses and "ESSO DEALER" emblazoned across his shirt pocket stares sourly at the camera.

Sam Vance also trained his lens on his own family. His young son admires a model of a Trans World Airlines plane. His toddler daughter squats barefoot in the sandbox and plays with her tea set. A few years later, she warms herself in front of the kitchen woodstove, framed in light beams from the window.

It is surprising, given the segregated society he lived in, to see how many pictures Sam Vance made of African Americans. In these pages is a close-up of June Crutchfield, who did yard work for the Vances. His brow is creased under the brim of his weathered hat. June Crutchfield and other African Americans in Kernersville lived just blocks from my grandparents. Sometimes their grandchildren or grand-nieces and -nephews played with the four Vance children in the [End Page 79] kitchen of one house or another. Ninety-five-year-old Liza Dick, who kept house for my grandparents' close friends, remembers her daughter Dilcie playing in the sandbox with my mother. (Maybe they used that tea set in the picture.) Their world was a strange mix of intimacy and separation.

Today, the world my grandfather photographed is mostly gone. Kernersville has become a bedroom community for Winston-Salem and Greensboro. The sidewalks are emptier, the car traffic heavier. My grandparents lie in the graveyard of the Kernersville Moravian Church, a block from their old house. Yet a record of the Kernersville they knew survives in the many...


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