Tobe: Charles Anderson Farrell Photographs Digitized in New Collection

Tobe, by Stella Gentry Sharpe

Hillsborough schoolteacher Stella Gentry Sharpe published Tobe in 1939 after a little boy in her neighborhood pointed out that all his story books were about white children. Sharpe then wrote the content of her first children’s book based on her observations of the same little boy and his family, the McCauleys. After completing the story, she did not want to settle for illustrations and felt that photographs were necessary to capture the children’s lives and personalities. It would be another three years before the right man for the job came along: Charles Anderson Farrell.

By the time Farrell was hired, the McCauley children had grown, and so Farrell was tasked with finding new subjects for his photographs. He traveled to the African American community of Goshen, N.C., where he used two families, the Garners and the Herbins, to stand in for Tobe and his large family. Recently, Farrell’s photographs from Tobe and other periods of his career have been fully digitized at the University of North Carolina’s Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library.

The collection contains all 61 photographs originally published in the children’s book, as well as a large collection of unpublished material Farrell took of the community. The photographs in the digitized collection are not cropped, and some of them show the degree of fiction and staging involved to reproduce scenes described in the book. The photograph below appeared in the book cropped with only the young boy and the snake; the content on the page described Tobe’s fear. In the uncropped version we can see an animal handler assisting with the shot [click images to see full size]:

Tobe photographs by Charles Farrell: "Snake in the road"

P0024/0051, “Snake in the road,” in the Charles Anderson Farrell Photographic Collection (P0024), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Farrell had to find subjects that matched the large family Sharpe was writing about. Tobe’s family members featured in the story include an older brother, two pairs of twin boys, two older sisters, a mother and father, a cousin, and an uncle. To achieve this, Farrell ultimately needed to use two families and combined the children for faux family portraits like this one:

Tobe photographs by Charles Farrell: "Our Goat"

P0024/0012, “Our Goat,” in the Charles Anderson Farrell Photographic Collection (P0024), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Even with all the criteria Farrell needed to meet, the final product is wonderfully authentic. Farrell explained, “The children look natural and unposed because I spent far more time on the little game we played than on the photography. The photography was incidental, and I think that only a few times were the children aware of the camera.”[1] The photographs follow the children and family through a range of activities: interacting with farm and wild animals, celebrating holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, and helping their parents harvest wheat, sweet potatoes, sugarcane, and more. The lack of self-consciousness from the children is apparent throughout the many playful photographs, perhaps none more so than this one of the boys playing on a wagon cart:

Tobe photographs by Charles Farrell: "Our Cart"

P0024/0023, “Our Cart,” in the Charles Anderson Farrell Photographic Collection (P0024), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Tobe is now available as a UNC Press Enduring Edition. UNC Press Enduring Editions use the latest in digital technology to make available again books from our distinguished backlist that were previously out of print. These editions are published unaltered from the original, and are presented in affordable paperback formats, bringing readers both historical and cultural value.

  1. [1]Charles Farrell quotation appeared on the original jacket flap for Tobe.