JULY-SEPTEMBER 2024

Twenty-three selenium-toned 8 x 10 matted and framed photographs taken in the 1970s comprise the exhibit, “You May Plow Here.”

In June 1974, I sat down to lunch with Sara Brooks, who had worked in my parents’ Cleveland household since 1948. I mentioned that I had been designing an anthropology course. She replied with a series of recollections about her childhood life on the farm her father had owned in Alabama’s Black Belt. Fascinated, I asked her to record her story on a tape I would share with my high school students. She agreed.

Sara Brooks’ preliminary, but vivid descriptions of the vanishing mule-farming way of life had a dual effect. I was compelled to interview her further and to organize her recollections into a book, You May Plow Here (Norton, 1986 & 1992; Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, 1987; The Fundamental Note, 2023 ). And, I was lured to Alabama, where I photographed vestiges of that mule-farming way of life, including African American contemporaries of Sara Brooks, who experienced it.

I went first for a week-long orientation during the summer of 1975, and then for longer periods during the summers of 1976, 1977, and 1979. I traveled by car, and because interior regions are the last to change, I regularly turned off paved roads and jolted over gravel and clay surfaces coursing through Sara Brooks’ home county and five adjoining counties. I navigated by general highway county maps based on field examinations conducted between 1968 and 1972. However, more often than not, by the late 70s when I found them, the remote dwellings, stores, churches, and schoolhouses indicated on the maps were abandoned and disintegrating. In other words, my search for the last mule farmer was about as fruitful as an effort to glean cotton from a field that had already been stripped.

Thankfully, my search did bear fruit. I recorded many tangible elements of Sara Brooks’ “old country”—the plow mules, the potato banks, the shuttered board houses standing on blocks. In that regard, they fulfilled my original intent. But when I look at them now, nearly half a century later, I understand that they also speak, by omission, to what had been absent from Alabama’s Black Belt during Sara Brooks’ childhood and continued to be absent when I traveled there in the 1970s—houses with solid foundations, storm windows, and indoor plumbing.

Before when I looked at my photographs of people, I was reminded of their extraordinary resourcefulness and endurance, and of the rapport we shared. Now, I understand that the photographs also reveal the pain and sorrow that burdened these individuals throughout their lives.

Put into the context of past history and contemporary American culture, these pictures attest to an indominable life force. At the same time, they provide undeniable evidence of the enduring harm caused by the withholding of wealth from a people once bonded in slavery and repressed by Jim Crow, and, to this day, persistently obstructed by housing discrimination, voter suppression, and other tactics that deny Black Americans the same rights and comforts that are enjoyed by this privileged white writer—and witness. Furthermore, these photographs represent an irrefutable and urgent call for reparations and reform.*

I cannot divorce the images included in the exhibit from the experience of capturing them. Alongside my lengthy and intimate collaboration with Sara Brooks, taking the photographs was one of the most moving—and increasingly meaningful—experiences of my life. My gratitude to all those who contributed to the making of the photographs runs deep and true.

© copyright Thordis Niela Simonsen
Denver, Colorado, 1986
Salida, Colorado, 2023

* www.brookings.edu/articles/why-we-need-reparations-for-black-americans/