By Mark F. Gray
AFRO Staff Writer
[email protected]

Bowie State kicked off the celebration of Black History Month by launching an exhibition of photographs from the AFRO chronicling the local civil rights movement through the lens of former photographer Paul Henderson.

During a career that spanned almost 40 years, Henderson recounted some of the most significant moments featuring celebrities and civil rights leaders throughout Baltimore and Maryland. Despite the difficult time where African Americans were treated as second class citizens, Henderson was able to find candid moments where many local historic figures display glimpses of hope. The full collection, featured at Maryland’s oldest Historically Black University, contains over 6,000 negatives and prints that are being featured prominently in the lobby of the university’s student center and will be housed in the school’s library.

Photos featuring leaders from the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras AFRO by photographer Paul Henderson are on exhibition at Bowie State University.

The Bowie State exhibition also brings to life the triumph and tragedy of daily life for Maryland’s African American community, who was dealing the opression of an United States version of apartheid that was prevalent during those years. Many of the photos include NAACP activities, protests, sporting events and church groups.  Current students who are studying education are being encouraged to develop lesson plans around this Black History visual artistry.

“Paul Henderson’s Civil Rights era photographs offer a glimpse into the historical roots of the African American community’s struggle for equal treatment under the law, which has implications for today’s fight for civil rights,” said BSU Special Assistant to the President for Strategic Engagement Kimetta Hairston, in a university statement.  “It is an excellent way to engage the public and our students in learning about African American heritage and culture during a pivotal time in our nation’s history.”

The Henderson photos are on display through May 4 and feature images of many leaders who played pivotal roles in the fight for equality during the Jim Crow days of segregation, which were featured during the AFRO’s coverage during that time.

Civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall, the first Black American Supreme Court Justice is displayed with a group of students who desegregated the University of Maryland along with former Congressman Parren J. Mitchell is notably displayed. 

Legendary actor and activist Paul Robeson is featured during his five-year battle to improve the seating of Black fans at Baltimore’s Ford’s Theatre during a series of performances. Pearl Bailey, an accomplished actress and singer who graduated from Georgetown University, is captured during a candid moment at an unidentified nightclub in Baltimore.  

Iconic gospel singer Mahalia Jackson is also displayed and the Baltimore activist known as Maryland’s “mother of civil rights,” Dr. Lillie Mae Carroll, is among the familiar faces who are represented in the collection’s main display.  

“We tried to select images with a lot of historic significance that would grab people’s attention in the space where there is heavy traffic,” the exhibit’s curator Joe Tropea, of the Maryland Historical Society, told the AFRO.  “It was important to show how despite how challenging the times were, there was still great African American pride captured by Mr. Henderson’s work.”

AFRO Archives Director Savannah Wood shared how the publication assisted in providing information for the exhibit.

“The Maryland Historical Society owns the Paul Henderson collection, so the majority of the photos in the exhibition came from them, but to provide context to Henderson’s work, the show’s curators reached out to us for images of the AFRO’s operations,” Wood explained. “We provided a photograph of former AFRO publisher Dr. Carl J. Murphy, an image of AFRO delivery trucks and a photo from the AFRO’s typesetting room.”

With over 127 years of publishing news about the Black community, Wood emphasized Henderson’s importance to the publication and the significance of being included in the exhibition.

“The AFRO is living Black history. We were founded in 1892, and without our publication, talented Black writers and photographers like Paul Henderson may not have had an outlet to explore and capitalize off of their talents. We’re happy that the context in which Henderson was working was recognized as part of this important exhibition.