New Exhibit of Richard Samuel Roberts’ Photos Aims to Bring Black History to Life

By N. Jamiyla Chisholm Oct 16, 2019

Self-taught photographer Richard Samuel Roberts became famous for documenting, through portraits, South Carolina’s segregated Black community throughout the 1920s and 1930s. His images get the royal treatment October 18 through October 20 via a new multi-disciplinary event at the Columbia Museum of Art. Harlem South: A View Through the Lens will feature 132 photographs from the artist.

Using Roberts’s images as inspiration, which were originally published in 1986—and again earlier this year in the book “A True Likeness: The Black South of Richard Samuel Roberts 1920-1936”—the weekend-long event will include a mix of jazz and theatrical performances of historical fiction that chronicle Black life in Columbia, South Carolina, between 1920 and 1936. The program will feature jazz musician Ronald C. McCurdy, Darion McCloud of the NiA Theatre Company and performers from the University of South Carolina School of Music

“We approach history as if it’s under glass, but what was it like? These were real people [in Roberts’ photographs],” McCloud told the Free Times in an article posted Wednesday (October 16). “Once you remove the glass, the stories, man—that’s the part that gets people.… We try to construct the world of Roberts, so that his characters can interact with each other.” 

According to the Free Times, McCloud said that the Roberts’ work “breaks all of these misconceptions about who Black people were in the 1920s and ’30s.” In comparing Roberts’ artistic brilliance to that of Vincent Van Gogh, McCloud continued: “These were real people. But it’s not biographical—we have to speculate and imagine what these people might have been thinking and what their lives might have been like. They may have been suffering, but not on that day—that may have been the best day of the year for them.”