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Remembering Doris Derby Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

7 April 2022

Doris Adelaide Derby, who was one of the rare women photographers of the Civil Rights movement, died on March 28 in Atlanta from complications of cancer. She was 82.

Growing up in Williamsbridge on the outskirts of the Bronx, Derby noticed an absence of people that looked like her in the movies, ads, the arts and books. Her early exposure to African dance in elementary school led to a scholarship to study at the Katherine Dunham African dance classes at the Harlem YMCA.

At 16 she joined the NAACP Youth Chapter at her church and continued with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee when she attended Hunter College in New York to study cultural anthropology. On the front lines of the civil rights movement as a student, she worked in New York City, Albany and the states of Georgia and Mississippi.

In 1960, she visited Nigeria, France and Italy, learning to appreciate cultural differences. She also visited a Navajo reservation where she saw the effects of economic inequality.

After graduation, Derby worked as an elementary school teacher and worked in an adult literacy program started by the SNCC at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, where discriminatory literacy tests were used to suppress the Black vote.

'When you make strides, the enemy takes steps to block your achievements, and you must do something else.'

She moved to the South to continue that work, co-founding a Black repertory theater, study education on racial lines, oversee Head Start programs and develop cooperatives that made Black products.

It wasn't until 1968, when she joined a Jackson-based initiative called Southern Media, that she picked up a camera. The organization's mission was to document Black life and train local Black residents in photography, providing equipment and a darkroom.

Unlike her activist work, her photography focused on the daily life of women and children in Black communities that had been ignored by mainstream media, just as she'd first noticed in childhood.

"These weren't images that were created to draw attention in the media, those flash point moments that S.N.C.C. and other organizations used as a catalyst for fund-raising," observed Julian Cox, curator of photography at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, who included her work in a 2008 exhibition. "Her work was differently focused and that's why it stood out."

"By documenting the quiet life of families, she offered a counterpoint to the impact of terror on those families," said Deb Willis, a professor of photography at New York University. "She showed images of the people who were affected by the inadequacies of that time -- the inability to vote, to be educated, to have health care."

She spent nine years in Mississippi before returning to academia in 1972. She earned a masters in anthropology in 1975 and a Ph.D. in 1980 at the University of Illinois Chicago. She taught anthropology and African American studies at there and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the College of Charleston, in South Carolina. From 1990 until her retirement in around 2012, she was the director of the Office of African American Student Services and Programs at Georgia State University.

In her 2021 book A Civil Rights Journey, she wrote:

We are seeing repeats of what we saw back then [in 1960s Mississippi], like voter suppression and police brutality. When you make strides, the enemy takes steps to block your achievements, and you must do something else.

She was interviewed for two hours by by Joseph Mosnier for the Library of Congress in 2011, which has published the video.

She was also an early member of Sistagraphy, a Black women’s photography collective in Atlanta.

She is survived by her husband Robert Banks, an actor and voice-over artist, whom she married in 1995, and her sister Pauline Roland Scott.

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