May 14, 2008 - August 24, 2008

I took these pictures back in the late winter and early spring of 1986 in support of Nicholas Lemann's "The Origins of the Underclass," which ran in two parts in The Atlantic Monthly. Nick started his reporting in the Robert Taylor housing project on the South Side of Chicago—at one time, the largest of its kind in America, home to 27,000 people. During the course of his interviews, he was intrigued to meet so many residents who had come north from the same small town in Mississippi (Canton, population 14,000) and decided to make the trip to find out why they'd left. That northerly migration of so many African-American southerners, and all that they brought with them, became the core of his story and the basis for these photos.

Nick and I had met a couple of years before at Texas Monthly, and we became good friends. It was at the dinner table one night, while listening to him talk about this trip to Canton, that it was decided: I had to shoot the pictures. At the time, The Atlantic didn't publish photographs, and I wasn't a professional photographer. But that didn't faze us.

Our pitch to his editor was built around the fact that I had grown up in Noxapater, Mississippi (population 500), not too far up the road from Canton, and knew the lay of the land. Nick vouched for my (still embryonic) photography skills. We didn't mention that I'd never been to Chicago or, for that matter, had only ventured north of Memphis once or twice, until then.

The Atlantic ended up running a handful of my photographs. I put the negatives in a box and rarely looked at them again.

* * * * *

I had been planning for the better part of a year to do a completely different show here at 401 Projects—the first exhibition of my photographs—but a few weeks ago, I changed my mind. Driving home one night, I was listening to a discussion on the radio about Barack Obama and religion when I heard it said that maybe part of the problem was simply that many people in this country had never been inside an African-American church.

When I got home, I pulled out some of these pictures and found myself looking at contact sheets of the Palm Sunday service I attended at the Greater Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church on my last day in Chicago those many years ago.

I met the pastor, Reverend J. B. Simms, purely by chance. I was on the sidewalk taking a photograph of his church, and he came out to ask me what I was up to. I explained my assignment, and he invited me in to, as he said, "hear the good news."

"I promise not to get in the way," I said.

To which he replied, "Son, don't you worry about that. Once I start preaching, nobody in this church is going to even see you."

And he was right.

Microphones, electric guitars, drums. Serious volume. People dancing in the aisles overcome with the spirit. Nurses dressed in starched white cotton, on duty to help ease them back gently into this world. A full choir, already heaven-worthy, should they fail. I had never witnessed anything like it. He was the single most charismatic person I have ever met—also one of the most generous.

As I was saying my good-byes, I told Reverend Simms that if the preacher from my growing-up days had even once made me feel the way I felt at that moment, I'd still be going to church. It was my best compliment, but he was none too happy with my backsliding ways.

* * * * * *

During the editing of this show, I listened to a lot of music—Delta blues, southern gospel, and most everything off the Chess label. But the song that really kept playing in my head was the traditional hymn "Wayfaring Stranger." As with all great songs, the lyrics read like poetry when divorced from the melody. And I love how the first verse tricks you into believing that the heavenly journey is merely an earthly one:

I am a poor wayfaring stranger
Traveling through this world of woe
But there's no sickness, toil, or danger
In that bright land to which I go

The journey made by some of the people in these pictures was not so very different from that of the mother the song speaks of in the second stanza:

Well, I'm going there
To meet my mother
Said she'd meet me when I come
I'm only going over Jordan
I'm only going over home

They were just mothers and fathers, relatives and friends—people willing to risk everything for the promise of something a little better in this life for the ones they loved. I felt lucky to know them. It was only six days in my life, but it changed me forever.

I know dark clouds
Will gather round me
I know my way'll be rough and steep
But beautiful fields lie just before me….

Fred Woodward
April 21, 2008