Looking through the lens at Possum Town with Berkley Hudson

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  • Published on November 20, 2023
  • Last Updated November 28, 2023
  • In Interview

Berkley Hudson takes you through the origin of his photobook “O.N. Pruitt’s Possum Town” and how the collection of pictures has memorialized the lives of Black Mississippi residents.

DETOUR publisher Ron Stodghill interviewed Emeritus Associate Professor of Media History at the Missouri School of Journalism Berkley Hudson about his book “O.N. Pruitt’s Possum Town.” This stunning book presents O.N. Pruitt’s photography of Columbus, Mississippi (a.k.a. Possum Town) as never before.

 

 

The picture book includes over 190 photographs taken by Pruitt, a biographical introduction, short essays by Hudson and contemplative captions on subjects such as religion, identity, the ordinary beauty of everyday life, and the use of aggressive power.

Hudson is a bit of an expert of Pruitt’s work. During the ‘70s, during his college years, Hudson and some classmates found “a treasure trove” of Pruitt’s photo-negatives in Calvin Shanks’, Pruitt’s assistant, studio. 

“[It was] what I now call a photobiography of our town that tells stories in ways that no other records do visual stories, but what we didn’t really realize [was] what was there,” Hudson said.

For 35 years, Hudson considered and curated Pruitt’s expansive archive through the Pruitt Project, both as a scholar of media and visual journalism and as a Possum Town native. “It reflects the history, not only of Mississippi in the American South, but America as a nation as a whole.”

Hudson and his friends who curated the photo collection not only saved Pruitt’s work from the dustbin of history, but also transported the untold lives and faces of Possum Town citizens to national news publications. Hudson spent ten years finding the identity of “a Black man in overalls with a mule outside a farmhouse.” 

The man turned out to be Sylvester Harris, a man who called President Franklin Roosevelt on the town’s phone and received presidential help with his mortgage during the 1934 Great Depression. Harris’ picture ended up in the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune and historically Black papers such as the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier, the Baltimore City Paper and the Atlanta Daily World. 

“The Black press…celebrated him as a spunky folk hero who gave hope during a time of great sadness and, and fear during the depression,” Hudson recalled.

Hudson’s curation of Pruitt’s collection has received acclaim and national recognition and appreciation. But one of his most notable receptions is from a past graduate student from Syria: The student empathized and connected with the photographed white and black community of Columbus, Mississippi. “That happens when you do what I say: you look, you slow down, you discover.”

 

 

Campbell Hamai is a journalist and associate producer with Detour through the Meredith-McClatchy Scholarship sponsored by the University of Missouri-Columbia, Missouri. She is passionate about elevating the work and voices of POC authors and creators. Hamai can be reached through email at campbellhamai@detourxp.com. 

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