Desean Hill, Tomon-Tae Chaplin and Mekhi Bailey recreate a pose from a 1950 Joseph Curtis photo; Photo Courtesy of CamShake, the Amidon-Bowen Photography Club
Amidon fifth grade student Desean Hill took one of the most important pictures of the project, above. The group is standing in front of the former site of Frank’s Department Store on 4th St. just across from the school. Frank’s owner sued the government because it deemed the area “blighted” at the time this photo was taken and the area slated for destruction. The Supreme Court ruled against him in 1954, paving the way for Urban Renewal and the demolition of Southwest and thousands of other communities across the country.
Photo Courtesy of CamShake, the Amidon-Bowen Photography Club
Joseph Curtis’ photos provide a markedly different perspective of Southwest than the “blighted” designation that those who advocated its demolition argued. His is also different from many photographers of the pre-1950’s who furthered that view, a still commonly held historical view, by coming to Southwest to document only the poverty that existed.
Photo Courtesy of CamShake, the Amidon-Bowen Photography Club

By Mekhi Bailey, Fifth Grade Student, Amidon-Bowen Elementary School

Southwest means love, peace and happiness to me. I was one of the students who went out in Southwest with my teacher Ms. Perry and Mr. Willem to take pictures of my community. Mr. Willem’s daughter Morgan goes to pre-school at my elementary school Amidon-Bowen. We used his professional cameras to take pictures at the same spots where an African-American photographer named Joseph Curtis took them a long time ago. Mr. Curtis lived his whole life in Southwest. I was born here and I’ve been through a lot, and the teachers at my school like Ms. Perry have helped me persevere.

This project has taught me that Southwest is a great community. Mr. Curtis’ pictures show it was great back in the day, too. Mr. Eric Thorpe is a crossing guard at the school and he is in the school lobby a lot, where the photo exhibit is. “This project has sparked more conversations than I’ve ever heard about Southwest and about racial issues. I’ve had people who remember old Southwest point to places in the photos where they’ve lived,” he said.

The project has inspired me to become interested in photography. I help my community and I take pictures of the places around me, because a lot of changes are happening. I love the Wharf. They didn’t have to build that but they did. But I am worried about tearing down some of the buildings where people live. I hope it will not be too expensive to live here and that I have to move.

Perspective on the Project

By Willem Dicke, Parent and Volunteer Advisor, Amidon-Bowen Elementary School

This project was inspired by a school event last year, when a student named Desean Hill asked if he could use my professional camera to help me take some pictures. With just a few instructions, he was handling it like a pro, and attracting the attention of other students. Desean, Haneef Wilson, Tomon-Tae Chaplin and their classmates were so enthusiastic that within a few minutes there were two professional cameras, an iPhone and a GoPro action camera surfing among them. When I later looked at the pictures they had taken I was impressed with the photos, but I was even more amazed by how quickly they had mastered the use of some very complicated equipment. At Westminster Presbyterian Church a month later, I stumbled across a collection of Joseph Curtis’ pictures, which depict a largely forgotten but vibrant cultural and economic community that existed in Southwest before the quadrant was razed during the 1950’s Urban Renewal period. I wanted to share these with the kids. Together with my partner-in-crime Ms. Para Perry, an award-winning music teacher at Amidon-Bowen, we decided to take the students to the sites Mr. Curtis had photographed nearly a century ago and recreate some of his shots.

With Mekhi’s personality, intelligence and instinct, he is a born leader as well as a talented photographer. Watching him and the photography group out on our shoots, they wound up doing more than recreating the photographs of Joseph Owen Curtis; they reinterpreted them. They added another chapter to the history that Curtis captured and concurrently their efforts challenge the dominant existing historical narrative of pre-Urban Renewal Southwest as a run-down place. The area’s perceived “blight” was exactly the argument advanced by proponents of the quadrant’s ultimate destruction in the mid/late 1950s and the resulting displacement of thousands of its residents.

I have worked with Ms. Perry for two years. I share for her the students’ affection and respect for the lessons in life, love and “A-Game” mentality she teaches in her classroom. It’s also been a privilege to get to know Principal Sykes; without her commitment and vision, projects such as this one or last year’s school video would never have gotten off the ground. But most of all, it’s been an honor to work with the Amidon-Bowen student photographers. As with other projects, the students have taught me much more than I’ve taught them.

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