Acquisition: Doris Derby
Doris Adelaide Derby (1939–2022) was a pivotal photographer and activist of the American civil rights movement. She promoted the importance of African American photographers, filmmakers, and playwrights exploring Black culture and addressing Black communities. She focused on representing and empowering Black women, detailing the value of their work and activism and emphasizing their impact on American culture. David Knaus has generously given the National Gallery of Art 11 photographs by Derby. They are the first works by her to enter the collection and they strengthen the museum’s holdings of photographs by African American women.
From a young age, Derby witnessed her family’s participation and leadership in social justice organizations. Her father founded the New York State Careerists Society, which fought racial discrimination in the workplace. Derby also understood the incisive role that photographs made by African Americans could play in documenting, archiving, and representing Black culture. She joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and used her camera to document their work and her experiences in Mississippi and Louisiana communities from 1963 to 1972. Her pictures focused on SNCC’s support of community programs such as adult literacy, voting rights, Head Start–funded teaching in rural schools, health clinics, and theaters. Derby’s photographs primarily document women and children, centering civil rights activists, teachers, students, farmers, nurses, quilters, and craft workers, among others. As a field secretary, she organized SNCC workers and contributed to education, art, and media projects such as the first Head Start teaching program in Mississippi, the Free Southern Theater at Tougaloo College, and Southern Media in Jackson, Mississippi.
Southern Media was a documentary and filmmaking group that covered events for political campaigns and legal purposes. The organization trained Mississippi civil rights workers in photography and provided a facility to develop their photographs. Derby’s work with Southern Media gave her the opportunity to photograph emerging politicians, activists, and the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Derby also began photographing candid scenes in and around Black communities in the Mississippi Delta, including the important Lowndes County voting rights campaigns.
After leaving Mississippi in 1972, Derby earned master’s and doctoral degrees in social anthropology and teaching at Georgia State University in Atlanta. She directed the office of African American student services and programs at Georgia State University. Toward the end of her life, Derby published two books of her documentary photographs from the South: Poetagraphy: Artistic Reflections of a Mississippi Lifeline in Words and Images: 1963–1972 (2019) and Doris Derby: A Civil Rights Journey (2021).
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