Upcoming ‘Ghosts of Segregation’ photo exhibit reveals where racism hides in plain sight

Exhibit aims to spark reflection on racial injustice of the past and present

photo by: Rich Frishman

The "colored entrance" at Moore Theatre in Seattle, Washington, in 2020.

The side of the white-glazed brick building, interrupted by a set of matte black double doors, is unremarkable. And that’s the point.

Most people would walk by the scene without a second glance, but the photographs in Richard Frishman’s exhibit, “Ghosts of Segregation,” which will open soon at the Lawrence Arts Center, invite viewers to look and see beyond what is there.

In present day the black side doors are unmarked, lacking handles. But Black and other non-white patrons of the Moore Theatre in Seattle were once required to enter through the doors, which lead up a steep staircase to an isolated second balcony. Around the corner, the marque of the theater is visible, its block lettering declaring “Black Lives Matter.”

photo by: Rich Frishman

Segregation wall at Templin Saloon, Gonzales, Texas 2016.

“Ghosts of Segregation” includes 35 photographs from the present day of side doors, back stairways, service windows and restaurant partitions. All were used during the time of Jim Crow laws and segregation to separate Black and non-white customers from others, relegating them to the balconies of movie theaters, the backs of restaurants and generally out of sight of white patrons. Other photographs, also shot in the present day, show the locations of civil rights protests or the sites of racially motivated violence or assassinations.

Frishman spent more than 40 years as a photojournalist, and has photographed social unrest and even violence for news stories, but this series is not that. Instead of generating an immediate visceral response, Frishman wanted the scenes to stir reflection in viewers. He said a side entrance or even a highway separating neighborhoods may seem mundane, but the significance comes in why it was built.

“Because we don’t think about that when we’re building it, that we’re revealing what cards are in our hands, so to speak,” Frishman said. “I think that the built environment is often the more accurate portrayal of what matters to us as a nation and culture than anything that we might intentionally provide.”

photo by: Rich Frishman

A photo in Rich Frishman’s exhibit “Ghosts of Segregation” shows Edd’s Drive-in in Pascagoula, Miss., in 2019. During the 1950s and 1960s, people of color could only order at the small window on the far right, and they could only order if there were no white people waiting to order, according to exhibit information.

“Ghosts of Segregation” will open at the Lawrence Arts Center on Sept. 10 and will run through Dec. 12. It will be the largest and longest running exhibit the Arts Center has hosted to date, taking up all three of the center’s gallery spaces. In addition to the exhibit itself, there will be related programming, including talks and films, as well as a visit from Frishman.

Exhibitions Director Ben Ahlvers said the Arts Center wanted to give the exhibit that extra space and time because of the power of the photographs, which he said capture racial injustice in a familiar way that speaks to both the past and present. For example, he said seeing the present day photographs of buildings with segregated entrances impressed upon him how recent segregation occurred, more so than just reading about it.

“It makes it seem that really in my lifetime it’s only existed on paper, but then to see some of these places in real time, that brings it all much closer than maybe it was before,” Ahlvers said.

Frishman said he does not see the photographs as just historical, and that he wouldn’t feel so compelled to make the photographs if racial attitudes were different. With events such as the murder of George Floyd and the recent wave of voter suppression laws, Frishman said issues that people died protesting during the Civil Rights era persist.

“The truth is that past is prologue, and if we don’t learn from our past, we’re just going to live it out again and again,” Frishman said.

photo by: Rich Frishman

The first Mississippi state field secretary for the NAACP, Medgar Evers, was shot in the back in the carport of his home in Jackson, Mississippi, shortly after midnight on June 12, 1963. He died less than a hour later at a nearby hospital.

In addition to Frishman’s photographs and the other programming, a class at the Arts Center will be documenting locations in Lawrence that illustrate the racial injustices of the city’s past, and that information will be presented as a companion exhibit that will open for Final Friday in October. Ahlvers said he hoped the “Ghosts of Segregation” exhibit and related programming would help generate discussion and engagement around the racial injustices of the past and what’s happening today.

“It’s sort of a propellant in a way to spark that conversation about the legacy, but also where can we go from here as it relates to racial injustice and all the injustices?” Ahlvers said.

Ahlvers said the exhibit will include information about how people can get involved with various organizations to actively fight racism in all its forms. Information will be provided about several organizations, including the Equal Justice Initiative, American Civil Liberties Union, Immigrant Legal Resource Center, and the NAACP, among others.

Frishman, who has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his feature photography, began the “Ghosts of Segregation” project in 2018 and continues taking photos. He said he will be shooting in Lawrence, Wichita, Topeka, and Nicodemus, which was founded in 1877 by people recently freed from slavery, while he is in Kansas. Apart from the 35-photo exhibit, which is premiering in Lawrence, he said his various photos from the project would be part of an upcoming book.

“Ghosts of Segregation” will open at 5 p.m. on Sept. 10 and run through Dec. 12 at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St. Entry is free, and more information about related programming will be posted on the Arts Center’s website, lawrenceartscenter.org.


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