Saturday, June 13, 2009

R.C. Hickman Chronicling the black Dallas that many never see

Deborah Voorhees

R.C. Hickman hid his 4x5 Speed Graphic camera on the floorboard of the car as he drove past a black man hanging in effigy.

A group of Mansfield residents had strung a life-size cloth doll from the high school's flag pole as a message to three black students who were expected to enroll. On a curb nearby sat a handful of white men threatening violence if they showed.

The year was 1956, and Mr. Hickman's editor wanted a photo for the Star Post, one of Dallas' weekly black newspapers. "I agreed to go if John Mitchell would drive me in his souped-up red Buick, " says Mr. Hickman, now 81. "I knew we might have to outrun someone."

When Mr. Hickman arrived, troublemakers already had forced an Associated Press reporter off the road and smashed another photographer's camera. "At first, we drove carefully by, and the angry whites didn't pay us no mind, " he says. "They had been keeping the white media out, but they didn't see me as the media because I was black."

On the second pass, Mr. Hickman scooped his camera up and, with one foot on the floorboard and one on the ground, he clicked two shots. This time, he got the men's attention. They piled into their car and within seconds were on Mr. Hickman's tail. He told his driver to haul toward Fort Worth. He had a buddy who owned the Pinkston Funeral Home; usually, he kept his garage door open.

"I was sure hoping it was open, " says Mr. Hickman. He and Mr. Mitchell sped through the streets, trying to lose their pursuers. As they pulled onto Terrell Street, Mr. Hickman saw the open garage. Mr. Mitchell swerved in and Mr. Hickman pulled the door shut before the other car arrived. Seconds later, it passed by unaware.

This was probably Mr. Hickman's most dangerous assignment as he covered black Dallas during the 1950s and '60s civil rights movement. "I had an exclusive on that photograph, " Mr. Hickman says. "No one else got that shot."

He not only covered news for his hometown weekly, the Star Post, but also free-lanced for national magazines such as Jet, Sepia and Ebony - covering the same city where, as a boy, he pitched pennies on Thomas Avenue and watched movies at the State Theatre.
"I was the one-shot wonder, " Mr. Hickman says. "I had to be. Film was too expensive."

These days, his photographs have been acquired by the University of Texas at Austin, which in 1994 published Mr. Hickman's book, Behold the People, a photographic chronicle of black Dallas. The university celebrated the acquisition with an exhibit, "Black Dallas in the 1950s: Photographs From the R.C. Hickman Archive."

Since then, his works have been exhibited at several places, including Paul Quinn College, the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library and Fair Park. "We don't have a lot of visual evidence of what it was like for African-Americans during this period - Brown vs. Topeka [Board of Education] and the civil rights movement [1950s-'60s], " says Don Carleton, director of the Center for American History at UT. "It's important to preserve this type of work so it can be made available for research."

By the time Mr. Carleton and Michael Gillette of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library & Museum in Austin discovered Mr. Hickman, he had long ago put away his camera. He was selling carpet and living in a one-story, ranch-style home in Oak Cliff. Ruth, his wife of 42 years, had passed away four years before.

It was the summer of '84 when Mr. Carleton and Mr. Gillette arranged to meet Mr. Hickman at his home. They wanted Mr. Hickman's collection for UT. To their delight, they found that Mr. Hickman was a pack rat. All of his negatives had been filed and kept in shoe boxes in the garage.

"It was like uncovering Pompeii, " Mr. Carleton says. With the removal of every layer of dirt, something new was revealed. But for him, the desire to save the photographs went beyond a business deal for the college.

"I grew up in East Dallas, not but about five minutes from R.C., and the only part of his world I knew about was when driving to Fair Park. I only saw it through the window of a car.
"It was a world I wanted to know more about. And - surprise, surprise - his family and neighbors were doing the same things as ours" - the weddings, the homecoming dances, the baptisms, the birthday parties, the parades, the beauty pageants - and Mr. Hickman had recorded it all.

"We covered what was happening in the black neighborhoods, " Mr. Hickman says. "The things that blacks did were ignored by the white papers. They didn't want black faces in their papers."
But the Star Post did (and so did the Dallas Express, the Star's competition). R.C. Hickman was there when notables such as Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Bunche came to town.

He snapped a shot of a 1958 shotgun murder victim. An ambulance arrived, but because the victim was black he had to wait for one designated specifically for blacks.

He photographed youths at South Dallas' Exline Park during the summer of '55, the first year black children could swim in a Dallas city pool. The kids were lined up with broad smiles, their skin glistening with water.

In October of that same year, Mr. Hickman photographed a young woman picketing on Oakland Avenue. She and several other youths, led by Juanita Craft and the Youth Council of the NAACP, were protesting Negro Achievement Day outside the State Fair. She carried a sign, "It is no achievement to be segregated at the fair. Stay out." He photographed Dollie Miles as she escorted her twins into City Park Elementary, integrating the school in 1961.

When black celebrities came to town, R.C. Hickman was there. He snapped shots of Billy Eckstine, Ruth Brown, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr. and Nat King Cole. When Cole came to perform at the Longhorn Ranch House, a popular Dallas nightclub once owned by Bob Wills, blacks could attend only on Monday nights.
"When I left to shoot Nat King Cole, my editor told me to get him with his mouth open, " Mr. Hickman says. "And see that! His mouth is wide open! He was singing "Mona Lisa.' "

His best photo, he says, was the one he didn't get. Martin Luther King Jr. was coming to protest at E.M. Kahn & Co. and Sanger Harris, neighboring downtown department stores. The stores allowed black women to buy clothes, but they weren't allowed to try them on. At E.M. Kahn & Co., "Mr. King first drank out of the black fountain, then he slowly walked to the white fountain and drank.

"Now, that was my picture, but I didn't get it because I was too shook up. I thought there was going to be a lynching or something, " Mr. Hickman says. "But all that happened was Mr. King said, "You know, that water tastes just the same.' " Later that day, he photographed King at the protest and at a pulpit. Mr. Hickman also did photography for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

After the courts determined that separate schools were acceptable if they were equal, the NAACP hired him to document the differences between the white and black schools. He worked under NAACP notables such as Thurgood Marshall, W.J. Durham and C.B. Bunkley. "The schools were as different as day and night, " Mr. Hickman says. "The black classrooms were dilapidated, toilets dirty, and the benches and books were used. Everything was fine at the white schools - everything was new."

His interest in photography first was piqued during World War II while he was watching a fellow soldier in a foxhole develop reconnaissance pictures. Mr. Hickman was stationed in Saipan. (His division was setting up a base so they could furnished ammo for the 4th Marine division.) He asked his superior if he could make a darkroom, and once he was set up, he began photographing soldiers, trucks or whatever his superiors requested.

After his tour of duty, Mr. Hickman developed film at Hall Gentry Photographic Studio in downtown Dallas. Then he applied for a GI loan and studied photography at Southwest School of Photography in Dallas, graduating in '48. He used borrowed cameras while he made payments on a 4x5 Speed Graphic, a large-format camera.

Although Mr. Hickman established himself as a newspaper and community photographer, he still couldn't earn enough to support his wife and himself. At the Star Post, which was next to the Party Grill and the Laundry-Pal Washateria, he held three jobs: circulation manager, advertising salesman and photographer. He was making $50 a week when he quit because he couldn't get a $10 raise. That didn't last. The paper's owner agreed to his request after being unable to find a suitable replacement.

Mr. Hickman stayed with the paper 10 years. "I got very little sleep, " he says. "My wife would help keep me awake so I could get my photos developed at night. Sometimes I didn't even get to bed."

As the circulation manager, he managed the newspaper boys, who earned a nickel of the 15 cents they charged for each paper. "I told them, if you sell 20 papers, you get 20 nickels. A little boy asked, "How much is 20 nickels?' I said, "You'll find out.' "

Photojournalism His first experience as a photojournalist came when he started taking assignments from the Dallas Express and the then-Kansas City Call. The latter was a weekly Midwestern paper that focused on racial inequalities, not violence. Mr. Hickman was the Dallas agent. He sold papers and took pictures. While he was with the Call, he recruited Dickie Foster, a woman who owned a record shop on the corner of State and Routh, to write a column called "Platter Chatter." "It was a social column, and it talked about top-10 records of the week, " Mr. Hickman says. "She sold a lot of records; I sold a lot of papers."

After the Star Post folded in 1962, Mr. Hickman continued his work as a community photographer, taking pictures of weddings, baptisms and such. He documented the places where blacks lived, worked, played and prayed. His snapshots include gas station attendants standing in front of Mac's Texaco, the first black-owned service station in Dallas; Annie Carr Mercer working under the hood of a car at her service station; three waitresses gabbing at the Aristocrat, a black-owned restaurant; a woman barber trimming a man's hair; Jim Randolph, a KLIF disc jockey, sitting in the radio studio; a shot of the Starlite Theater marquee, "Southwest's Finest for Colored Americans"; and the front of Papa Dad's BBQ, a local hangout.

There's little evidence left of these establishments, Mr. Hickman says. "When integration occurred, black businesses suffered, and the Great White Fathers destroy things so no one knows the history. You see, it's not State-Thomas. That's not what it was called. It was Hall and Thomas."

These days, Mr. Hickman takes his images and his stories to schools around Dallas and tells youths about the history of blacks in Dallas. "R.C. has one of the few records of black people and their accomplishments in this area, " says Earlie Montgomery, a longtime friend of Mr. Hickman's and a retired stock-brokerage manager. "I lived through having to sit on all-black train cars. I lived through not being able to use a bathroom in the downtown department stores. So did R.C.

Youths have no concept of what that was like. These photos tell the stories." And the animated Mr. Hickman loves to reminisce. His face lights up as he recalls being chased out of Mansfield or tells about the photograph of King that he didn't get. But the documentarian has finished recording stories. Since his days as a photographer, he has lived many lives. As a carpet salesman, his old boss, J.D. Hall, says, "He could sell ice to an Eskimo." He's also managed a couple of bowling alleys and was the first black manager at a Skillern's drugstore.

These days, he's retired. "My camera has gone to bed, " Mr. Hickman says. "I'm proud of the work I've done, but now I'm glad to just look at it."

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