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Historic African-American photos on display

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Natchez Democrat

Imagine walking into a room where George Washington Carver is fiddling with test tubes in his laboratory, Jersey Joe Wolcott is delivering a mighty punch to Rocky Marciano’s jaw and Gregory Hines is tap-dancing barefoot.

The room is at the Old U.S. Mint, where the Louisiana State Museum has mounted an exhibit of 100 photographic portraits from African-American history.

‘‘Let Your Motto Be Resistance’’ — organized by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery and taken from their archives — represents the drama and joy, adversity and achievement that are all part of the black experience in America.

Set in a historic building with spots of rust, peeling paint and spidery cracks, the faces in the exhibit illuminate the room and invite rumination and regard.

‘‘These are great photographs of great people,’’ says Steven Maklansky, director of curatorial services at the museum. ‘‘They show the contributions of African-Americans to our shared history and culture.’’

Along with Carver and Wolcott and Hines, there are 97 other portraits, dating from Frederick Douglass in 1856 to Wynton Marsalis in 2004, that line the rich and softly lit brown walls.

There is James Baldwin looking prayerful, Ella Fitzgerald belting out a song, Muhammad Ali jumping rope, Angela Davis shouting into a microphone, Sidney Bechet wailing on his soprano sax, Dorothy Dandridge being glamorous and Amiri Baraka staring into the camera.

There are two pictures of Martin Luther King. In the first, he is shown young and handsome with his family. In the second, he is also with his family, but he is in his casket, while his 5-year-old daughter, Berniece, who has just caught sight of him, stands gawking in amazement, with her mouth open and her eyes wide.

Some of the most sumptuous photographs in the exhibit are of athletes.

‘‘It’s always interesting to see a static image of an athlete,’’ Maklansky says, ‘‘and to try to see within the photograph some evidence of the power and grace contained within their extraordinary bodies.’’


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