People and their People is a photographic portrait project aimed at documenting people of mixed ethnicity who played a role in the formation of our country. It’s a way of holding our ancestors close. It’s a way of understanding ourselves better.
In the Appalachian mountains where I grew up it was not unusual for someone to ask “Who are your people?” In my family, we’ve spent hundreds of hours documenting our family history, often stumbling upon mysteries and roadblocks. Beyond countless hours in dusty courthouses and overgrown cemeteries, we have spent hours looking at the few old family photographs we have, contemplating the faces of those who came before. The family tree comes alive when you look into the eyes of your ancestors. Photographs can play an important role in genealogical studies. But tracing your family history can be more challenging for families of mixed-ethnicity, such as the Melungeons, Goinstown Indians, Redbones, or Pell Mellers, just to mention a few.
Historically, being perceived as “other” often meant you were denied the right to own land, vote, or send your children to school. Because of this some families sought to hide their history, sometimes destroying records and photographs. On top of this, factors like isolation and poverty meant the opportunities to be photographed were limited to begin with, making the photographs that do exist remarkable treasures.
The idea for this project emerged in 2007 while finishing a documentary entitled “melungeon voices.” Witnessing people share photographs and stories of their ancestors with such joy and pride moved me . . . I sensed that there were layers of meaning to find in photographing ‘people and their people.’
While many of the first portraits were made in southwestern Virginia, and eastern Tennessee, mostly with individuals who identify as Melungeons, I have since expanded the scope. During 2016 and 2017 I concentrated on making portraits of people within North Carolina, and have recorded individuals who self identify as Black, Meherrin, Chowanoke, Tuscarora, and several who identify as mixed. I am seeking individuals of Lumbee, Cherokee or Saponi heritage currently to expand the collection.
The exhibit will be installed at the Baltimore Indian Heritage Museum beginning in October of 2017 and is scheduled for exhibit again in the summer of 2018 at Mountain Empire Community College in southwestern Virginia.
Previous exhibits include the Southwest Virginia Museum in Big Stone Gap,VA and The Museum and Archives of Rockingham County, NC. (MARC) During the opening reception at the MARC, I was thrilled to meet several descendants of individuals who attended the Goinstown Indian School. Their portrait is now part of the collection as well.
My heart lies with documenting the people of America in all their various shades. I intend to remind people to seek out the story of their ancestors, celebrate our mixed ethnicities, and remember that we are all connected.
These works are dedicated to my parents Leland Benjamin Williams and Phyllis Gwendolyn Bolling Williams who instilled in me a deep intrigue for knowing ‘my people.’
For information about hosting this exhibit please contact firstname.lastname@example.org