It was 1971. I was 18. My dad had recently been installed as the new pastor of Wisconsin Avenue Baptist Church in Washington D.C. I’d moved from my home state of South Dakota to be with my family and attend college at the University of Maryland. I’d transferred my job as a telephone operator to a nearby Maryland suburb while establishing residency prior to starting school. I quickly accumulated new friends, many of them black as the D.C. area has, according to the most recent United States Census Bureau report, a 50 percent black population. By contrast, my home state (again according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau report) is only 1.7 percent black. My black friends would often attend church with me. And sometimes we’d hit the beach and boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey. That’s when I first noticed that a casual walk down the boardwalk with my tall, attractive black friend, Tony, drew an inordinate amount of attention.
Fast forward to May 2009 when American photographer and film maker, Gillian Laub, was assigned by New York Times Magazine to photograph what became an exhibition titled “Southern Rites,” a provocative and timely visual study of a small-town Georgian community’s struggle to confront longstanding issues of race and inequality. This exhibition, which is currently featured at the Lamont Gallery on the Phillips Exeter Academy campus in Exeter, New Hampshire, began as an exploration of racially segregated proms and homecoming rituals. Laub’s fascination with the subject ultimately expanded to encompass a decade of documenting the rural community of Mount Vernon’s experiences — a poignant portrait of an American town. In doing so, she captured on film, and eventually in an HBO documentary, the racial tensions that scar much of American history. The story brought national attention to the town and the following year the proms were finally integrated.
In 2011, the story took on unexpected intensity when the murder of an unarmed young black man by a white town patriarch in Montgomery County seemed to obliterate all the incremental progress that had been accomplished. (The older man called 911 to report the incident and said, “Well, I had a little trouble out here a while ago. It was just a black kid.”) This unexpected twist in the plot signaled to Laub that perhaps a larger story needed to be told — and she set about to do that. Through her intimate portraits and first-hand testimony, Laub captured the story on film as well as capturing photographs of the changes that were occurring. According to consulting curator, Maya Benton, of the International Center of Photography — the organization promoting Laub’s traveling exhibition — Laub’s project, which began as an exploration of segregated high school rituals, evolved into a decade-long mandate to confront painful, deeply rooted national realities.
“Through her lens and the voices of her subjects,” Benton continued, “we encounter that which some of us do not want to witness, but what is vital for us to see.”