Portrait of a Community
In Black and White
Bob Ray Sanders
Calvin Littlejohn grew up in Arkansas and moved to Fort Worth, Texas in 1934. It was the proverbial cowtown - the original Cowtown --- with a population of not much more than 150,000. Littlejohn taught himself photography, was the photographer of record in the black community until his death in 1993.
His photographs are a peek into black life of the mid- and post-depression. It shows a community totally isolated from the white world ... at least until the radical changes of fifty years ago, changes now reflected in the very publication of this book.
We couldn't quite figure out who was behind it --- TCU Press? --- until it hit us that it was probably the old Texas Christian University, a bastion of segregation before the 1970s. But when we looked it up "segregation/TCU" on Google, we found an unfolding debate not over black vs. white, but over TCU's decision to offer segregated housing for gay and lesbian students, a debate that certainly would have baffled Littlejohn. Thus the 21st Century.
Thus Calvin Littlejohn might not have been welcomed to the campus in the 1950s; now he would be considered just another minority. The photographer, apparently, lived only to record, faithfully, the black business and social life that surrounded him, the coffee shops, the fraternal orders, the schools, bars, dry-cleaning establishments, barbershops, and the funerals (complete with pictures of the deceased). It was a world of dilapidated bareness, a society forced into poverty by the social system in pre-Civil Rights Texas; black-and-white shots of a black-on-white life which --- up to the very end --- faded even as the power elite fought to maintain the separation. (In the early part of the last century, a visiting KKK official congratulated Fort Worth Klan leaders because "90 percent of your preachers, your leading lawyers, and your social leaders are loyal klansmen.")
Littlejohn was part of the change, and as he matured, he was able to spread his work, his subjects and his fame. In his final decades, he took photographs of Nat "King" Cole, Lionel Hampton, Ella Fitzgerald, Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall (and, in one memorable shot, Jesse Jackson, laughing heartily). One of the penultimate photographs shows George W. Bush, complete with a what-me-worry? smile, standing next to the powerful Fort Worth minister, Rev. N. L. Robinson.
Among thousands of negatives left by Littlejohn, the editors have brought together 150 for this volume. They include a picture of the president of Fraternal Bank & Trust, complete with fedora and roll-top [Fig. 1], one of "Paris Holmes" and his personal car-wreck [Fig. 2], and portraits of two merry cheerleaders from I. M. Terrell High School in 1948 [Fig 3].
--- Ella Mae Jones