by Gerald Boerner
Today we feature an African-American photographer, Myrtie Mims. Myrtie Mims spent years documenting the life of the African-American community in Nacogdoches, TX, especially its children and the changes to that community over the years. It has always been difficult to obtain information on all but the most famous Male African-American photographers; it has been even harder to obtain information about this community-based African-American woman photographer.
Much of the content below reflects local newspaper articles, especially those related to her death. We can all take a lesson from Myrtie about the importance of documenting and providing photos to the less affluent members of our communities so that they will be remembered when our homes, churches and shopping areas have fallen prey to “redevelopment.” GLB
“She was married to Noel Mims.”
— Interview with Unknown Man, by Jeri Mills
“You are a pretty girl, and I will make your picture beautiful.”
— Myrtie Mims
“Yea, I remember her, she was a nice lady, and I think she made pictures. Yea, she had a studio in her home.”
— Interview with Unknown Woman, by Jeri Mills
[S]he was much more than "a nice lady who took pictures in and around Nacogdoches.”
— Jeri Mills
“I can only say that I was elated and very happy with my picture, because she made a beautiful picture of me just like she said she would.”
— Dr. Faye Rison, a native of Nacogdoches
“Her photography work focused on posed portraits of babies, young children, individuals, family groups, school groups and church groups.”
— Jeri Mills
“Mrs. Mims made pictures of dark- and light-skinned people look natural. I remember it being said that she took beautiful pictures of black people, because she put light on the faces of darker people.”
— Rebecca Rison
“The large room did not have any furniture, but it had several large cameras in different locations. The studio-looking room had different colored sheets and a black-and-white sheet hanging on the walls. On a flat table was a large cube in the center with large lights on both sides.”
— Rebecca Rison
Black Photographers: Myrtie Mims (Clayborne)
If you say the name, "Myrtie Mims" to some African-American senior citizens here in Nacogdoches, they would respond, "Yea, I remember her, she was a nice lady, and I think she made pictures. Yea, she had a studio in her home." Some older men said, "She was married to Noel Mims." These are consistent comments heard about the late Myrtie Mims, and they are good descriptions of her. Personally, I want the readers to know that she was much more than "a nice lady who took pictures in and around Nacogdoches." My research tells me she was the first and only woman photographer who dared to venture into a world dominated by male photographers, at this period of time. There were male photographers who had their own studios located throughout East Texas from the early ’40s through the late ’70s. Many of the African-American male photographers were successful, until integration in the early 70s forced most of them out of business.
Historically, African-American male photographers were in business throughout East Texas, and many took pictures of school children. After segregation ended and so-called "integration" began in the mid-’70s, these same male photographers were forced out of business because they had to compete with white photographers, when they learned there was money to be made in the black community. The black photographers were forced out of business because they could not get supplies and other products at the same rate as their white competitors, causing them to eventually go out of business. Folks, this same theory could be applied to many black businesses after integration.
A relative said Myrtie Mims once worked as a nurse assistant in Rusk. She was not sure of the years. She also worked for Sid Roberts Funeral Home, at one time. It was not known what she did there or the years. County Commissioner Reggie Cotton put me in touch with his mother, Frances Cotton, who shared with me the connection with Myrtie Mims and Sid Roberts. Myrtie Mims’, father John E. Mims, was the brother to Sid Roberts’s wife, Annie Jones. Their sister was Bobbie Jones Garner who was Frances Cotton’s grandmother. Commissioner Cotton called Myrtie Mims’ father, "Uncle Buddy."
This brings me to make an open appeal to African-Americans in Nacogdoches and East Texas:
It is important to learn about our family history, and we can do this with a process called "family genealogy," which will help us to confront our own history by keeping the memories of our ancestors alive. When we study our family history, we will come to understand that our ancestors were not faceless. It is important to identify family members of the past and to understand their struggles were heroic and that they were able to survive and to build a foundation on which we stand today.
In the past two years, I have talked to many people about the late Myrtie Mims, and the comments above have been consistent. I cannot remember exactly who first told me about her, but I was fascinated with her story – which led me to Marshall, where I tracked down her nephew, L.C. "Laskey" Chatham. He graciously agreed to talk to me about his aunt, while telling me that he did have some of her photographs stored away in his garage. We agreed to meet in Marshall, and true to his word, he shared some of the photographs from her collection.
On the drive back to Nacogdoches, I told my husband how unusual it was that this woman had lived and worked here in Nacogdoches and succeeded as a photographer and had her own studio. From research and local interviews, it was determined that she started her business around the late ’40s, and it faded out in the ’80s. It is believed that her business as a professional photographer was at its peek from the ’50s through the ’70s. From the photographs and portraits from her collection, others agree when they look at the photos, and make the same conclusion. For example, there are photographs of church groups, school groups and graduates during this period of time. Several Nacogdoches people are helping me identify people in these photographs, some of which will be displayed at the Nacogdoches Public Library during the month of February. Her photography work focused on posed portraits of babies, young children, individuals, family groups, school groups and church groups.
Dr. Faye Rison, a native of Nacogdoches, shared her own personal story about her experiences with Mrs. Mims, when she went to her studio. In the year 1960, Faye Rison received an academic scholarship from Southland Paper Mill. This was a big honor at this time, and Faye’s mother, Rebecca Rison; her teacher; Percell Warren, a counselor at E.J. Campbell High School; and Mrs. Rocquemore all encouraged her and wanted the news shared with newspapers. She needed a picture for the news article. Her mother took her to Mrs. Mims.
According to Rison, her mother did not have extra money, at the time, and she and Mrs. Mims worked out an arrangement to "barter." In those days, to barter meant to exchange service, which was very common in many communities. Her mother was a beautician so she would "fix" Mrs. Mims’ hair in exchange for the picture she needed for her daughter to put in the newspaper. When Rison arrived at Mrs. Mims’ studio, she was very shy and uncomfortable because she was self-conscious about the "gap" between her front teeth. Mrs. Mims put her at ease and showed Rison that she had a "gap," also, while assuring her that she would make her picture beautiful. She told me.
"You are a pretty girl, and I will make your picture beautiful," she said.
Later she said, "I have known Mrs. Mims, since the days of my youth, when she lived on Orton. My family lived a few blocks from Mrs. Mims, at 1509 Butt Street. When we were children, my mother would walk us to visit my uncle Colquett and aunt Mildred Ferguson who lived across the street from Mrs. Mims. Sometimes, I could see her taking pictures inside that big studio room in her house. On a few occasions, she would come outside and take picture of us playing with other children on the street. My mother had many pictures of the neighbors’ children taken by Mrs. Mims. One day we all went to Mrs. Mims’ studio and watched, as she took pictures of my Aunt Mildred’s baby. Mrs. Mims made pictures of dark- and light-skinned people look natural. I remember it being said that she took beautiful pictures of black people, because she put light on the faces of darker people. I can only say that I was elated and very happy with my picture, because she made a beautiful picture of me just like she said she would."
It was a time when many white photographers would not put extra light on dark-skinned black people, and their pictures came out unnatural and too black. Yes they did!
Dr. Rison identified several pictures from the Mims collection of children who grew up on Orton Street. She described Mrs. Mims’ studio as a conversion of her living and dining room – making it into a large studio room.
Rison said, "The large room did not have any furniture, but it had several large cameras in different locations. The studio-looking room had different colored sheets and a black-and-white sheet hanging on the walls. On a flat table was a large cube in the center with large lights on both sides." She thought this was the table used for babies, because she had several fuzzy blankets in different colors. Dr. Faye Rison, a native of Nacogdoches, now lives in Denver, Colo.
Photographs from the late Myrtie Mims collection are on display and showcased at the Nacogdoches Public Library.
After talking to many people about Myrtie Mims, I will have to agree that she was a nice woman, and after reading The Daily Sentinel today, I hope you will agree that she was a "woman before her time," daring to be a successful photographer, in spite of the fact that she was female and African-American.
I am grateful to Barbara Lewis, Archie Rison, East Texas Historical Research Center, Dr. Faye Rison, The Daily Sentinel, the Nacogdoches Public Library, Charlotte Stokes and Commissioner Reggie Cotton for contributing to this article. A special thanks to the late Mrs. Myrtie Mims’ nephew, L.C. "Laskey" Chatham; and cousins, Frances Cotton and Joseph Goodwin.
Join me and others to celebrate African-American Heritage and Culture With Love Sunday, Feb. 14, at Stephen F. Austin Grand Ballroom. Bring family and friends to enjoy historical and informational displays, entertainment, exhibits and speakers. This event is sponsored by the African-American Heritage Project, Progressive Leadership Group, Stephen F. Austin State University history department and Noel Cotton at Sid Roberts Funeral Home. Next week this column will share more information about the life of Myrtie Mims Clayborne and her contribution to African-American Nacogdoches history.
Deborah Willis. (2002) Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present. W.W. Norton & Co.
Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Web Sites and Blogs:
The Daily Sentinel: Remembering Myrtie Mims (Clayborne)…
The Daily Sentinel: Mills: We Must Yell and Share Our History…
The Daily Sentinel: Female photographer captured vitality of African-American community…