O. N. Pruitt’s Possum Town: Listening To Pictures

The following is an excerpt from Berkley Hudson’s O. N. Pruitt’s Possum Town: Photographing Trouble and Resilience in the American South.

Photographer O. N. Pruitt (1891–1967) was for some forty years the de facto documentarian of Lowndes County, Mississippi, and its county seat, Columbus–known to locals as “Possum Town.” His body of work recalls many FSA photographers, but Pruitt was not an outsider with an agenda; he was a community member with intimate knowledge of the town and its residents. He photographed his fellow white citizens and Black ones as well, in circumstances ranging from the mundane to the horrific: family picnics, parades, river baptisms, carnivals, fires, funerals, two of Mississippi’s last public and legal executions by hanging, and a lynching. From formal portraits to candid images of events in the moment, Pruitt’s documentary of a specific yet representative southern town offers viewers today an invitation to meditate on the interrelations of photography, community, race, and historical memory.

Columbus native Berkley Hudson was photographed by Pruitt, and for more than three decades he has considered and curated Pruitt’s expansive archive, both as a scholar of media and visual journalism and as a community member. This stunning book presents Pruitt’s photography as never before, combining more than 190 images with a biographical introduction and Hudson’s short essays and reflective captions on subjects such as religion, ethnic identity, the ordinary graces of everyday life, and the exercise of brutal power.

Happy Book Birthday to O. N. Pruitt’s Possum Town: Photographing Trouble and Resilience in the American South, officially on sale today! Visit our Hot Off The Press: January 2022 post to see the other books we’re publishing this month.

In the Mississippi house of my boyhood, a red brick, three-bedroom place on South Fourth Street in Columbus, framed photographs lined the walls of a long hallway.

Here were pictures of family gatherings of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and birthdays, many taken at my grandmother’s house. She lived around the corner in a rambling, two-story Victorian filled with Pekingese and antiques. At that house, a man named Mr. Pruitt would come to make pictures that ended up in our hallway. Anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five of us would arrange ourselves in rows: cousins, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and above all, the matriarch who paid for the picture, Lillian Pearl Walker Fraser, my grandmother, an eccentric woman called Gaddy—short for Gad-about, because she loved to drive her baby blue Lincoln Continental.

Pruitt was the picture man for our family and town in northeast Mississippi. To paraphrase poet Williams Carlos Williams’s description of photographs by Walker Evans, Pruitt’s photographic eye was straightforward and puritanical. He photographed the Sanitary Laundry and Dry Cleaning, run by my maternal grandparents (“When clothes are dirty, dial Six-Thirty”). He photographed my father’s Main Street Service Station (“Don’t Cuss. Call Russ”), with its separate “Clean Restrooms Inside” for “gentlemen,” “ladies,” and “colored.”

Outside the station, he would make pictures of my daddy and the men who worked with him. Among them were two Black men, George Aaron, known as Bobby Sox, and John Henry. Today, at that same spot where they pumped gas and washed cars stands the Tennessee Williams Welcome Center. It is a Gothic Victorian, two-story house that once was the rectory of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. In 1911, Thomas Lanier Williams, who would become a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright, was born in Columbus and lived in the rectory. How that house came to be moved from St. Paul’s around the block is a story for another day. But in 1952, when Tennessee Williams returned to visit Columbus, Pruitt did photograph him.

I do not attribute this to Pruitt, but in high school I became a photographer and writer for, then editor of, my school newspaper. In the early 1970s, as a student journalist at the University of Mississippi and then at Columbia University, I became interested in Pruitt’s photographs. I was making lots of pictures, sometimes with photographers Birney Imes and Mark Gooch, two boyhood friends. I even photographed at the Lowndes County jail—still segregated by race in 1972 when I wrote a college magazine story about the “Groundhog Hotel,” so-called because prisoners could dig out and escape.

As part of visual excursions with my friends, we visited photographer Calvin Shanks, a beanpole of a white man with curly brown hair and a cigar often in the side of his mouth. Shanks had been Pruitt’s assistant until 1960, when Pruitt retired and Shanks bought the business, located up one flight of creaky wooden stairs at number 413 ½ Main Street. One day Shanks showed us the trove of negatives taken over four decades by Pruitt. The negatives smelled to high heaven, but we realized that these were the pictures of our childhood, families, friends, and neighbors—white and Black in black and white.

We asked Shanks if he would sell the negatives to us. He said he wanted to hold onto them, for now.

Years passed. Shanks died in 1981. Eventually, Shanks’s family sold most of the photographic equipment and negatives to Bill Frates, a photographic hobbyist who admired Pruitt’s pictures of trains. For a few years, Frates maintained the collection in his Main Street store, where he and his mother sold everything from refrigerators and stoves to shotguns, fishing rods, and knitting supplies. But, like Shanks, he never found time to deal with the voluminous set of pasteboard boxes and wooden crates chock-full of smelly negatives. Eventually, in 1987, Frates agreed to sell us the negatives; we bought a remaining few from the Shanks family. By then, two other Columbus boyhood friends, Jim Carnes and David Gooch, joined our project.

Twenty-five years later, with the vagaries of weather and time taking a toll on the negatives, we decided that the best home for the collection would be Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a foremost repository of items from the American South. We then estimated the number of negatives: 48,726 from Shanks and nearly double that from Pruitt, 88,657, including close to 2,000 glass plates, from bygone era of photography greater than film.

Berkley Hudson is emeritus associate professor of media history at the Missouri School of Journalism of the University of Missouri.