The Mississippi Department of Archives and History recently featured Berkley Hudson, author of O. N. Pruitt’s Possum Town: Photographing Trouble and Resilience in the American South, in their History Is Lunch series. Sponsored by the John and Lucy Shackelford Charitable Fund of the Community Foundation for Mississippi, History Is Lunch is a weekly lecture series that explores different aspects of the state’s past.
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.
Visit our Hot Off The Press: January 2022 post to see the other books we’re publishing this month.
Berkley Hudson is emeritus associate professor of media history at the Missouri School of Journalism of the University of Missouri.