Thriving Public Memory in Syracuse - some side-trips for Rt 81 planners

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 05/01/09More articles
("View from the Pulpit," copyright Deborah Willis, courtesy of Light Work)

Tucked away off the Panasci Lounge in SU’s Schine Student Center, the photo exhibition "Embracing Eatonville" is a treasure worth climbing stairs for. It’s one of a several related public memory projects that those contemplating the future of Route 81 might take in.

On view through May, the 2004 Light Work exhibition is reprised to coincide with the Syracuse visit of one of its artists. "Embracing Eatonville" surveys Eatonville, Florida, the oldest Black incorporated municipality in the country and home of Zora Neale Hurston, whose father served as the town’s third mayor and pastor of the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church. In 2002, Syracuse photographer Carrie Mae Weems invited Dawoud Bey, Lonnie Graham and Deborah Willis to join her in this project.

"Embracing Eatonville" features Weems’ photos of herself – “channeling Zora,” observes Willis – walking the town’s shady paths, sitting by its lake, relishing conversations beside a piano or a pick-up truck. They’re among my favorite of any Weems work. Lonnie Graham photographed the town residents at market and their homes dwarfed by ancient, moss-draped trees. Dawoud Bey made vivid color portraits of young people. Willis captured the “View from the Pulpit” (in this region red in church evokes the “blood of the lamb” more than scarlet women), the town’s beauty salons (part of a larger project for her), its lake and landmarks. Framed texts draw from aphorisms of local folk wisdom.

In 1987 Florida’s Orange County was all set to expand tiny Eatonville’s main street to a five-lane highway, opening up the county’s last undeveloped chunk of real estate. Hurston’s pioneering decades as artist and African-based folk-life historian were critical to Eatonville’s designation in the National Register of Historic Places and to its citizens’ successful efforts to halt the highway plan. Instead, local history and arts projects have flourished there and drawn national attention.

Willis – MacArthur fellow, Smithsonian and Schomberg curator, NYU department chair, artist and major photohistorian – is an old friend of Light Work. In town earlier this month, she recalled that Weems “was the first person to invite me to be in a show, in the 70s.”

Last November Willis was invited to talk about Black vernacular photography by SU’s South Side Initiative, its off-shoot Community Black Syracuse Preservation Project, Light Work and the Onondaga Historical Association. Pesky airport delays abruptly prevented that. On April 8, she made the trip. At State Street’s Dunbar Center, Willis showed slides from communities of color nationwide, historic photo and oral history projects. Ostensibly a consult for SSI’s preservation committee, the Dunbar talk soon overflowed with a surprisingly rapt, fidget-free after-school crowd. Willis also showed images by Syracuse’s Marjory Wilkins from last fall’s Light Work show, adding, “I wish I’d seen these before my last book went to the publisher.”

Out this coming October, "Posing Beauty" is part of Willis’ exploration of historical images of Black women. She also showed slides later at SU, her discussion ranging from South African singer/activist Miriam Makeba to 1890s-era Black beauty pageants to mainstream media consternation with Michelle Obama.

Actually, public memory projects abound locally, some long-term like Beauchamp Library’s African American Resource Room. More recently new director Gregg Tripoli has refreshed initiatives at Onondaga Historical Association. This semester SU’s Joan Bryant taught the off-campus course, “Black Syracuse: Organizing and Interpreting Hidden Research Collections,” developed with fellow faculty Marcia Robinson and librarians Angela Williams and Bonnie Ryan.

At Grace Episcopal Church, the photo component of Kendall Phillips’ collaborative project, “After the 15th Ward,” opened on April 16th with buffet supper and guest, Columbia University psychiatrist Mindy Thompson Fullilove. Up just briefly during February’s Sojourner Story-telling Conference, the 15th Ward project is now on view till May 13, with images lent by Beauchamp Library, OCC, OHA, The Post-Standard, Marjory Wilkins, Aldo Tambellini, Tim Schilling, Syracuse Housing Authority, the B.C Rudolph family and Josh Brilliant.

Fullilove’s 2005 book, "Root Shock," traced the devastating effects of displacement on multi-ethnic, inner city neighborhoods wrought by highway expansion plus the federal Urban Renewal program of 1949-73. Fullilove noted that vibrant neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, Newark (NJ) and Roanoke – like our own 15th ward – were first labeled “slums” as a means of justifying their destruction. Fullilove views those policies as “the domestic part of the Cold War” with its deep suspicion of working class enclaves.

Far more resilient than ever expected, the 15th Ward can richly inform today’s urban planning.

This article appeared in the April 30, 2009 print edition of the Syracuse "City Eagle" weekly on page 1. “Embracing Eatonville” on view to May 29 in the Panasci Gallery, Schine Student Center, Waverly Avenue. Copies of the catalogue, “Contact Sheet #124,” available from Light Work Gallery, 315.443.1300. “15th Ward: Memories of a Syracuse Neighborhood Transformed” to May 13 at Grace Episcopal Church, 819 Madison St. (Sun. 9-12, Mon. 4-6, Tues. and Thurs. 9-1, Wed. 4-7) and see More on Fullilove’s work at Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at

TAGS: Light Work, Deborah Willis, Carrie Mae Weems, Dawoud Bey, Lonnie Graham, Syracuse, 15th Ward, South Side Initiative, Onondaga Historical Association, photo, African American history, Marjory Wilkins
EDITION: The Eagle

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